PORTLAND, OREGON -- I had just concluded an hour-long Israel update with a group of congregants at Congregation Shaarie Torah, a large synagogue in northwest Portland, Oregon. It was my third talk in as many days, and the gentleman's kind, heartfelt words were just one highlight of a truly wonderful weekend in the city.
I landed in Portland Thursday afternoon, following a 27-hour, 9,000-mile journey from Tel Aviv. I was greeted at the airport by Amy Albertson and Brittany McCay, the two Portland State University (PSU) students who had invited me to Portland and arranged my trip.
The two are co-founders of With Israel PDX, a new student group dedicated, in their words, to "peaceful education about the modern State of Israel and its people and culture." In keeping with a tradition that is quickly spreading amongst North American college campuses, the students decided to organize an Israel Peace and Culture Week, a series of events dedicated to spotlighting Israel's society and commitment to peace.
As part of the week-long extravaganza, the students also chose to launch #IsraeliAmazing, an innovative multimedia campaign aimed at utilizing social media and other tools to share the truth about Israel with the PSU campus community. The group invited me to speak about advocating for Israel in the social media realm, and my talk was to be the kickoff event for both Israel Peace and Culture Week and the #IsraeliAmazing campaign.
At Shaarie Torah, I spoke to a 30-person conversion class about how the Hebrew calendar and Jewish holidays are observed in Israel. The group seemed both engaged and interested as I told them about the role Yom Kippur plays in determining when daylight savings time ends, about Holon's Purim parade, and about the newer holidays and days of remembrance instituted since Israel's establishment. Following my talk, the congregation's rabbi, Arthur Zuckerman -- who served in the IDF and is unabashedly devoted to Israel -- drove me to my hotel.
The next evening, I joined a group of student leaders for Shabbat dinner at Congregation Ahavath Achim, a Sephardic synagogue near the PSU campus. We were joined by Natalie, the Jewish Agency shlicha (emissary) in Portland, who told me about the challenges and opportunities of representing our organization in a community like Portland. Following dinner, we walked over to the PSU campus.
PSU is the state's largest university, with nearly 30,000 students. The campus' some 600 Jewish students are served by the Greater Portland Hillel, a multi-campus center that serves nearby Lewis and Clark College and Reed College, as well.
PSU has recently seen a number of incidents in which radical student groups have partnered with local anti-Israel organizations to malign Israel and challenge its very right to exist. In one incident last year, vandals defaced an Israeli flag on an event poster with a swastika. In October, Israel's deputy consul-general was subjected to a protest accusing Israel of "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing."
Dozens of students and community members filled the PSU multicultural center as I discussed the importance of peace to both Israelis and Palestinians before recounting my own experiences as an online advocate for Israel. I then shared seven key tips on how to advocate for Israel using social media, emphasizing the importance of truthfulness, empathy, and positivity. The talk was followed by a spirited question-and-answer session, during which participants sought to better-understand how they might join the online effort on behalf of Israel.
The next morning, we walked to Shaarie Torah for Shabbat services, followed by a communal Kiddush (luncheon). I sat and spoke with some local high school students, as well as with a group of students from nearby George Fox University, who had come to observe Shabbat as part of a world religions class. After Mincha (the afternoon service), I led a session on the current state of affairs in Israel, which was attended by an overflow crowd of community members. The question-and-answer period was lively and intense, and the participants seemed genuinely grateful and excited to learn about the current issues facing Israel.
I spent the remainder of Shabbat as a guest in the home of Rabbi and Mrs. Zuckerman and departed Portland late Saturday night.
Throughout my brief visit to Portland, I was struck by both the depth of the Jewish community's love of Israel and the role The Jewish Agency is playing in sustaining and strengthening that love. Time after time, young people told me about how their Taglit-Birthright Israel experiences had changed their lives. Younger community members told me about their interactions with Israeli summer camp counselors sent by The Jewish Agency, and about their plans to spend extended periods of time in Israel with Masa Israel Journey. A number of adults told me they intended to make Aliyah and were already in touch with our shaliach in San Francisco. And it is clear that the presence of a Jewish Agency shlichah in Portland is helping further deepen the community's ties to Israel.
As a visitor from Israel -- and as someone with two sisters who are currently serving in the Israel Defense Forces -- I was touched by the recitation, in English, of prayers for both the State of Israel and her soldiers during Shabbat morning services. I took note of the Israeli flags standing prominently alongside the arks in the synagogues I visited. And I was continually moved by the spontaneous expressions of love and support that community members felt driven to share with a visitor from Israel -- the father whose son had recently had a transformational summer experience in Israel; the student who said she couldn't wait to go back for a longer stay; the hotel bellhop whose partner is Israeli; the older gentleman who had fought in Israel's War of Independence and whose Zionism still burns strong; and the many others who came over to shake my hand, wish me a "Shabbat Shalom," and thank me for coming.
By the time I boarded my flight back east, I had lost my voice and was showing signs of fatigue. Still, I enjoyed every minute of my visit. Thanks to our organization's efforts and to such remarkable local initiatives as With Israel PDX, I have every confidence that the Portland community's connection to Israel will grow ever stronger in the months and years ahead, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to observe that relationship firsthand.