Holding on to the center
By Paul Haist
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I was not able to attend the first major community-wide event held in the new ballroom/auditorium that has been carved out of the old, dark auditorium at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center.
That was the Portland Jewish Academy annual auction Jan. 27, which, I am told, was a great success owing in large part to the exciting new Jewish space.
I did attend the second community-wide event in the new space. That was Men's Night Out, the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland campaign gathering and guy-type shmooze held on Jan. 30.
The community needs to know what a valuable resource the new venue at the J is.
Standing behind two men waiting to get coffee, I heard one say to the other, "I can't believe it's the same place."
The transformation was exactly that astonishing.
It's a beautiful room, elegant but not ostentatious.
Pending final approval by the fire marshal, it can accommodate 375 people at eight-person tables, and many more when performance-style seating is in place.
For 16 years I have been attending Jewish events in and around Portland as the editor of this paper. Almost always they are in hotel banquet rooms and they could almost as easily be Rotary Club meetings for all the Yiddishkeit they have had.
This Men's Night Out was different.
It was absolutely 100 percent perfectly Jewish.
Take the food.
Allen Levin runs the food service at the Mittleman Center now. His feast was unlike anything I was ever served at any previous Jewish banquet.
Entrees? Did we have entrees!
There was lamb stew and short ribs and chicken and a succulent vegetarian acorn squash melange.
It was all delicious. I wanted to go back for seconds, but the man sitting next to me wouldn't stop raving about how wonderful the space was.
As good as the meal was, what made it perfect was that is was absolutely 100 percent kosher. Any Jew could have sat down to that banquet, and they did.
Dr. Harry Glauber, president of the Orthodox Congregation Kesser Israel, took me aside to tell me 12 members of his shul were there that night.
Kashrut at the MJCC kitchen is overseen by Oregon K, a kashrut authority established by former Kesser Rabbi Leonard Oppenheimer. Besides Oppenheimer, who remains Oregon K's executive director, OK supervision is done also by Rabbi Kenneth Brodkin, Oppenheimer's successor at Kesser, and by Rabbi Zalman Krems.
Providing delicious and reliably kosher food from a flawlessly kosher kitchen in a venue that can accommodate a large gathering such as a Jewish federation event is a giant step forward here in inclusivity.
It is a step that is long past due, important to Jews all across the spectrum of observance and expression. It also was precisely what Men's Night Out Co-chair Jason Kaufman called it: "an historic event in Portland."
There was more to it, however, than the venue and the food.
There was friendship and camaraderie, catching up with old friends and making new ones.
Of course, a federation campaign event wouldn't be a federation campaign event without a dog and pony show.
At this year's Men's Night Out, that show was fascinating.
The 200 men and three women in the room sat in rapt attention for almost an hour as Noam Neusner and Jay Footlik shared inside views of the White House West Wing and the Oval Office.
Both men are former presidential liaisons to America's Jewish community—Neusner to George W. Bush, Footlik to Bill Clinton.
Oregonian Associate Editor David Sarasohn, who attended Men's Night Out with his son, moderated the discussion and fielded questions from the audience.
The room, the food, the friendship, the programming—it was all of that that made the night so special.
There was one other thing too.
Portland's Jewish community recently almost lost its community center owing to financial problems that have been discussed in this paper.
Men's Night Out Jan. 30, was, as was the PJA auction three days earlier, a celebration of victory, a celebration of the achievement of having held on to our center, literally and figuratively.
Jerry Sadis sits on the MJCC board and was one of the key players in the challenging task of keeping the doors open at the J and transforming it into a business that works. When he stood at the podium and looked around the simply elegant banquet hall teeming with Jewish faces he said, "This center has arisen from the ashes."
The room erupted with applause.
When all was quiet again, Sadis expressed his and the entire community's gratitude to MJCC President Jordan Schnitzer and his family, MJCC board member Jay Zidell and his family, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, the publisher of this newspaper, for the indispensable roles they played in "staving off foreclosure" at the center.
I have not been a member of the MJCC for a number of years. But the day after Men's Night Out, I went back and paid my dues, and I've been going back almost every day.
Now, you should do that too. Go pay your dues. Do it now. It's a bargain.
And when you plan a big Jewish event, hire the hall at the J. Anything else would be second best, and may you then have to explain yourself to your mother.