Portland: ecology, beer and huge Ten Commandments

Portland, Oregon, is eco-friendly. It has vibrant neighborhoods, excellent public transportation and great brew pubs. And on top of all that, there’s abounding natural beauty.

But visitors to Portland — and even the 135,000 or so people who have moved there in the past 20 years — are missing a major attraction if they haven’t seen the massive Ten Command-ments at a Conservative shul in Southwest Portland.

I was there a couple of weeks ago, and now I’m back with this travel tip: On your next trip to Portland, you simply must visit Congregation Neveh Shalom. Thou shalt not believe your eyes!

You pull into the parking lot, and there it is, shooting 33 feet toward the heavens, worthy of inclusion in one of those “Roadside U.S.A.” books. And, really, how many Jewish things are in those kinds of books? I mean, you’d expect to find a wax museum of Christian Bible scenes (in Ohio) or a 62-foot-tall Jesus (hmm, also in Ohio). But a 33-foot-tall Ten Commandments? In golden, 3-foot-tall Hebrew letters? At a Conservative synagogue? In Oregon?

“It is a little odd,” said Aaron Pearlman, a Portland native who lived in San Francisco from 1998 to 2002 when he was the Young Leadership director for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. “I don’t know that you’d say everyone in the Portland Jewish community loves them, but …”

OK, so an article in a local alternative weekly was headlined “Big Ten: Portland synagogue claims world’s largest Ten Commandments.” (I think, in terms of prestige for itself and the community, a synagogue would rather be known for something other than a novelty.)

OK, and maybe some in Portland view it as comic fodder: My friend Alex, for example, has a dream in which a humungous Moses — like the huge, inflatable gorillas you see at used car lots — is standing outside the synagogue next to the tablets. (Well, at least he isn’t grabbing them and breaking them.)

Alex continues: “I don’t read Hebrew, but I’m pretty sure one of the commandments reads, ‘Thou shalt buy organic and local,’ you know, for this area.” Ah, Portland eco-humor.

This is not a joke: On a former approach into the Portland airport, pilots gave their location to the contol tower by saying, “I can see the Ten Commandments.”

For the record, there is a bigger Ten Command-ments, in Murphy, N.C. But it’s shaved into a slightly sloped grassy hillside. Hardly magnificent.

Neveh Shalom’s tablets are upright, constructed of stone and glimmering in a golden hue, surrounded by the ornate structure of the synagogue itself.

They were built as part of a new synagogue in 1961, a time of upheaval for local Jews after a new freeway cut through the city’s Jewish area. The city’s two Conservative synagogues (Ahavai Shalom and Neveh Zedek, both founded in the 1800s) decided to merge and buy a piece of land.

“It was way, way out there,” Pearlman, 38, said. “But it [the location and the merger] was pretty forward thinking.”

Fifty years later, 1,000-family Neveh Shalom (2900 SW Peaceful Lane, in case you want to visit) is in the heart of a new Jewish area, Hillsdale, which includes the JCC, Chabad, a Jewish day school and several synagogues.

In step with greater Portland, the region’s Jewish population has zoomed over the past 10 years, from about 17,500 to 28,500. For decades, three synagogues served the city; but now there are 18, as well as many Jewish organizations and services.

One thing I was shocked to learn is that Portland was the largest U.S. metropolitan area to not have a Hillel presence. That has changed this school year with the hiring of Pearlman as the Hillel director for the area’s colleges: Portland State University, Lewis & Clark College and Reed College.

“It’s pretty significant,” Pearlman said. “A lot of students whose families were fairly involved in the Jewish community in Portland wouldn’t even consider coming here.”

Thou shalt not be a problem anymore.

Andy Altman-Ohr lives in Oakland. Reach him at andy@jweekly.com.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr is J.'s former managing editor and former Hardly Strictly Bagels food columnist. He lives and writes in Mexico.