Being Jewish in Corvallis

hanukahAs you all well know, because you’re all well informed and, it is to be assumed, users of the Internet, this year Thanksgiving will fall on the first full day of Chanukah. This is less neatly coincidental than it sounds. Since Jewish holidays start in the evening, the first full day of Chanukah is when the second candle is lit. Still, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event. The next time it will happen is in roughly 78,000 years.

On the eve of this most glorious Thanksgivukkah (boy, that name hasn’t gotten annoying yet…), I thought I’d share the experience of a Jew in the Willamette Valley.

I moved to Corvallis from San Francisco earlier this year, and there’s something I’ve noticed both of these places have in common.

There sure aren’t many other Jews around.

It’s okay, don’t worry, this isn’t a piece of useless hand wringing about demographic realities. But the reality for Jews, especially Jewish students at OSU, is that there aren’t many options for Jewish gathering and tradition honoring. For most young folks these days (get off my lawn, sonny!) this really isn’t a big deal.

I went to college in a valley in Pennsylvania where there was likewise not many Jewish students. And I didn’t mind one bit. I’m not very religious, but at times it is nice to have the option to go to nearby services or to be with a group of other people who share your heritage.

There isn’t a total dearth of options. There is Beit Am, led by Rabbi Benjamin Barnett. He presides over a congregation of over 150 member families comprised of people from Corvallis, Lebanon, Philomath, and the surrounding areas.

Barnett moved here with his family, a wife and now three children, in 2006 after finishing his rabbinical studies in Philadelphia. He had no previous connection to Oregon.

“I finished my seminary studies in Philadelphia and Beit Am was looking for a rabbi,” says the rabbi.

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, which cites the Berman Jewish Databank, there are roughly 41,000 Jews in Oregon. This clashes with a widely publicized study by the Jewish Federation of Portland, which claimed there are 47,000 Jews in Portland alone. It’s hard to say for sure what the actual number is, but it’s clear that of the small number of Jews in Oregon, the bulk of them are in Portland. So Corvallis has startlingly few Jewish adults, and while there are no exact figures on it, most of them are not students at the university. So there is definitely a population of Jewish residents, with families, looking for a place to worship, or at least connect with other Jews.

“Beit Am is a small but thriving Jewish organization,” says Barnett, “out of a two-story blue house on 36th Street.”
They host all manner of events for students and locals, including Shabbat dinner every Friday night at the headquarters at 625 36th Street.

“We have 15 to 20 people coming for Shabbat every week, and we have 61 kids in school (Sunday religious school) every week,” according to the rabbi.

They also host High Holidays services at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on Circle Boulevard, which sometimes have as many as 200 people coming to celebrate and worship.

Rabbi Barnett comes from a Reconstructionist background, but the Beit Am congregation has Reconstructionist, Reformed, Conservative, and other Jewish religious movements.

There is not a large number of Orthodox Jews in the area, but some, out of lack of other options host their own services at home. There are even some who invite others to participate, regardless of which branch of Judaism they subscribe to, creating their own small synagogues (I call them Minigogues, but unfortunately that’s not catching on…).

But all are welcome at Beit Am, including the students of OSU.

“We’re the only Jewish organization between Eugene and Salem. We have members from Albany, Lebanon, and Philomath. And we have some who are culturally Jewish but felt no connection,” says Barnett.

There is an OSU chapter of Hillel, the world’s largest Jewish organization for students, which is on over 550 college campuses, but they do not have many members and they’re not tremendously active. Their website is currently not working, and they have no upcoming events listed. They do sometimes work in conjunction with Beit Am.

There is no Chabad, an organization like Hillel but for more observant Jewish branches, at OSU. So Beit Am is pretty much the only place to find organized services, no matter what religious branch it is.

“We’re totally egalitarian, and we just do our best to honor tradition,” says Barnett.

So even I’m welcome there. But in the words of another great Jewish thinker, Julius Henry Marx, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.” Cue rimshot and pie throw.

Jewish Holidays: The Big 3
The Jewish religion has many holidays, but contrary to appearances, some of the most noticeable, like Chanukah, are actually not the ones that require a trip to the synagogue, or minigogue, or even the local Universalist church. Here are the biggies that you’ll want to call Beit Am to schedule seats for:

Rosh Hashanah
This literally translates to “head of the year,” or new year. The new year isn’t considered a “religious” holiday to most, but for those who keep an eye on the Jewish calendar, it is. And it kicks off what’s known as the High Holy Days, which is the most sacred time of the year. Between Rosh Hashanah and the next entry on the list, are what’s known as Yamim Nora’im, or “days of awe.” There are 10 of them.

Yom Kippur
The culmination of Yamim Nora’im is Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement.” On this day Jews traditionally fast for 24 hours, reflect on their lives, and apologize to people they’ve wronged. For me this includes a yearly apology to my mother for being such a little jerk.

Pesach
You’ve probably heard of this one, called “Passover,” and it’s pretty important. We celebrate the liberation of the Jews who were slaves in Egypt. A Seder is held, a dinner organized to retell the story of the holiday. Then we go watch Charlton Heston re-enact it and see how close we came. For about a week we don’t eat anything with yeast, and an assortment of other things depending on whether you subscribe to cutting out Kitniyot or not. So some won’t eat corn, rice, and a host of other things either. It’s all pretty awesome, and Manishewitz macaroons are definitely a go.

Passover is also part of the three pilgrimage holidays, along with Shavuot and Sukhot, called the Shalosh Regalim, where Jews would traditionally make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

You may now collect your University of Phoenix Rabbinical diploma. You’re welcome.

If you’re looking for a place to get your Shabbat on, or any of their other many programs, you can check out Beit Am at their website, www.beitam.org.

by Ygal Kaufman

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