Portland's Jewish culture gets a new home
On the days leading up to the grand opening of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education at 724 N.W. Davis St., its inner workings were in a state of disarray. But it wouldn't be like that for long.
It was a noisy environment as construction workers hurriedly drilled and hammered fixtures into place; they only had days left until its public opening at noon Sunday, June 11.
Soon enough, the 15,000-square-foot space would serve as the city's premiere location to learn about the Holocaust and other complexities of Oregon's past — something the center's leaders have noticed younger generations desperately need more of.
"It became very clear to us that students have little to no understanding of their own community. There's no other institution looking at that history the way we wanted to do it," says the center's executive director, Judy Margles.
So in the newest iteration of their ever-evolving effort, they're joining the museum big leagues, having left their much smaller dwelling on Northwest 19th Avenue and Kearney Street for the larger spot in Old Town. They expect the new spot will help double their current 10,000-a-year annual visitorship because they can participate in nights of the First Thursday art gallery showings.
The $5 million purchase was announced last July; they raised the money to make the move in 45 days.
Helping to provide a quick transition, since they did not want to be closed for the summer 2017 season, was the fact that the building previously had housed a museum — the Museum of Contemporary Craft, which is now stewarded by the Center for Contemporary Art and Culture at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, 511 N.W. Broadway.
Further aiding in the ease, Margles says, was the fact that they already were finishing a feasibility study about what it would take to expand.
"It offered everything we wanted in a museum, so we galvanized very, very quickly to raise the purchase funds," she says.
Future in focus
But now that the purchase and move is in the past, the future is ripe for more education — their mission.
In addition to a humble little cafe featuring Jewish dishes just through the entryway, the new museum holds galleries for national and international exhibitions, and more space for what they call permanent "core" exhibitions, including on the Oregon Jewish experience, the Holocaust through the lens of local survivors, and one on discrimination in Oregon.
There also are extensive archives open to the public, including 2,000 objects, and 500 square feet of documents.
The core exhibitions are called permanent, in that they will go largely unchanged for at least five years.
The opening of the exhibit on discrimination in Oregon, half of which also focuses on the state's protest and resistance movement, is called "Discrimination and Resistance, An Oregon Primer." It comes at a particularly relevant time as hate speech and racial incidents, and related protests, have occurred in the city.
Relevant opening exhibit
"If you look at the history of discrimination in Oregon, I think what the exhibit is telling people is that there are things that happened in this state that are going to be a surprise to many people," Margles says.
A Jewish Portlander who came from Toronto, she has been the director for the past 17 years. Margles was inspired to create the discrimination exhibit by The Memory and Tolerance Museum in Mexico City. Mentioning Oregon's long history of discriminating against people who weren't Caucasian, Margles believes that by telling more of Oregon's stories accurately, and collecting interviews with the state's few living Holocaust survivors, it will help visitors be better stewards of the world.
Curator Bruce Guenther agrees, adding that the exhibits are a "conscious explanation of the history."
"Not only from that first-person narrative," he says. "But from the narrative of a society and community, and big issues of our day, and the leaderhsip that has come from the Jewish community around civil rights issues."
The discrimination exhibit provides visitors more than just a few placards to read and images to stare at. It poses them with a call to action.
Margles recalled the recent local tragedy, when an alleged white supremacist killed two men and injured another on a MAX train. The man was shouting anti-Muslim slurs at two young girls when the three men intervened. The men have all been hailed as heroes.
"We want to help visitors understand ... they need to be an upstander, not a bystander," Margles says.