Portland’s Co/Lab is Reimagining What It Means to Be Jewish

January 21, 2022

This past Summer I walked away from my 15 year rabbinic career to reimagine what it means to be Jewish. Burnout, personal changes and profound personal theological shifts made it simply impossible to continue along the path of mitzvah, let alone lead a congregation.  In important ways though, all of this was just the beginning of my Jewish life.

In the fall, along with about a hundred friends I launched Co/Lab: Reimagine Jewish, an organization trying to create the next iteration of Jewish life  in Portland.  Co/Lab’s name says it all.  It’s a laboratory, a place to experiment with meaningful communal Jewish life.  And it’s fundamentally collaborative.  All  the programming we do originates from conversations in which I ask, “If you could wave a magic wand and have the Jewish Portland you want, what would it look like?”

The result of these daydreamy meandering discussions is a new panoply of programming for Jewish Portland.  There is Art/Lab, an artists fellowship that has a cohort of Jewish artists studying the intersection of Jewish texts and contemporary issues.  The artists are learning about Shmitah (the Sabbatical year), and each month after studying texts together, we meet with a local activist whose work touches on some of the themes we’ve discovered.  Completely Outrighteous: A Purim Celebration is a drag/comedy variety show (with a parade!) that will raise money for a local organization trying to address Portland’s homelessness crisis.  In the spring we will work with a local Church that has a village of mini-houses for the homeless to create A Second Night to Remember; A Seder With the Houseless.  The event will be planned and executed, with members of the homeless community helping to lead the programming.  And in the late spring we will host a major gathering on the intersection of Judaism and psychedelics.

The programming reflects the desire of people to be part of a Jewish community that is welcoming, invigorated, creative, and that gives them an opportunity to connect their Jewish identities to the world around them.  For some of the people I meet, Jewish spirituality and Torah is an  important part of their path. But for many others, it is Jewish teaching, culture, and connection with others that inspires them.  Many in this latter group have no intention of joining shuls, or feeling bad about not doing so.  They just want a communal space – literally and figuratively – to create a life of Jewish meaning without being forced to do so in religious terms.

All of this is new in Jewish Portland. The rest of the country may see my native town as some version of the ludicrous hipster mecca portrayed in Portlandia, but Jewishly it’s far from it.  Yes, Portland teems with creativity.  Food cart pods and delicious restaurants dot the landscape, a healthy arts and music scene thrive even under the pressure of Covid, rivers of delicious beer continue to flow from local breweries, and  highly engaged – even if much vilified – political activists keep everyone on their toes.  Meanwhile institutional Jewish life is in essentially the same shape that it was 25 years ago.  True, the city is full of some pretty awesome rabbis and a superb Jewish Museum – but Portland’s Jewish world doesn’t live up to Slabtown’s reputation for innovation.

Or rather, Portland’s organized Jewish world doesn’t.  My work on Co/Lab has been inspiring and uplifting because it has put me in touch with a world that I was cut off from when I was behind synagogue walls. It’s fascinating and revealing how much my perception of Jewish life has changed. From within the walls of the synagogue, the glass of American Jewish life is half empty, with fewer people attending, weaker affiliation and all the other litany of institutional woes we can recite by heart.  But as many of us know, outside of Jewish institutions, the cup runs over. People are reinvigorating Jewish life, both religious and not, on their own terms.  So, some of what we do is catalyze creativity, and some of it is simply connecting and collectivizing the vitality that has recently emerged.

In a funny way, my work with Co/Lab is as much an act of faith as was my life as a religious Jew.  I still love and respect those whose Jewish paths have them finding new ways to bring the Jewish past to life through Torah and Mitzvah. But I have faith in those others, like me, who believe that the Jewish future can be written from the passions, concerns, and creativity of people in the present moment. If we experiment and if we collaborate, we can create new expressions of Judaism and Jewish culture that will guide us into our future together.

*Rabbi Josh Rose is a member of the Reboot Network. Find out more about Co/Lab: Reimagine Jewish here.