Portland Mothers Circle model of successful outreach to women new to Jewish culture

For mothers who are new to Judaism through marriage or by choice, the task of raising children within the Jewish faith can be overwhelming. Thanks to Mothers Circle, a 16-week free course facilitated by Portland Jewish educator, author and life coach Lois Shenker, these women have access to a treasure chest of Judaic customs, rituals and history that provide the foundation for a Jewish home.

Launched by The Jewish Outreach Institute in 2008, Mothers Circle is offered in 70 U.S. locations, and JOI has selected Portland’s program to serve as the national model.

“Out of Portland, Oregon, not the largest of Jewish communities, comes the most successful Mothers Circle program in the country,” wrote Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, executive director of JOI, in a recently released case study featuring Portland exclusively.

Jennifer Greenberg, program director of Congregation Neveh Shalom and the coordinator of Mothers Circle, said, “When you are looking at the huge intermarriage rates, a lot of programs don’t make non-Jewish partners welcome. That’s the crux of this program. … There are many families who desire to raise the kids Jewish but just don’t know where to turn for the information they’re looking for.”

The JOI study attributed the success of the Portland program largely to the “credibility” of Lois Shenker, who has worked in the Portland Jewish community for decades. The author of Welcome to the Family! Opening Doors to the Jewish Experience, she can also “empathize with participants as a mother who has intermarried adult children,” the study relates.

The study also credited Shenker for enhancing the core curriculum supplied by JOI.

Shenker said she initiated segments on Jews’ relationship to Israel and the history of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, which she believes are “absolutely central to understanding the Jewish experience.” She also added an overview of the community, with a tour of the mikveh, the Holocaust memorial, synagogues and the Robison Jewish Health Center. Guest speakers cover topics such as preschool options, Jewish camps, the Oregon Board of Rabbis’ Introduction to Judaism series and the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School.

“We all enjoy doing what we do well,” said Shenker, “and these women want to do it well. As their kids start to learn, they want to learn too, and they want to be a step ahead of the kids, not a step behind. … In families where women have not felt comfortable or capable of leading rituals such as lighting the candles, this class gives them the ability to take on that role.”

She told the story of a husband who, after many years of marriage, turned to his wife one Shabbat and said, “‘Would you light the candles?’ It was the first time he had offered to have her light the candles, and she was thrilled.”

Shenker encourages her students to adopt Judaism on their own terms. “I always use the analogy Judaism is like a big treasure box. If you opened a trunk from a pirate ship, what would you take? … We all take what works for us. That’s what’s so beautiful about Judaism. It allows you to do that.”

The two main partners of the program are Congregation Neveh Shalom, which provides the staff, and the Mittleman Jewish Community Center, which houses the classes. Several other groups support this program.
Mothers Circle

Free course for women new to Judaism

Classes meet every other Sunday, Oct. 7-May 5, 9:30-11:30 am. Free child care is provided.
To register, contact Jennifer Greenberg at jgreenberg@nevehshalom.org or 503-246-8831, or visit www.TheMothersCircle.org.
Dads Night

Mothers Circle, the MJCC and JFGP host a series of Dads Nights open to all Jewish dads and dads raising Jewish kids. The night attracts 30 to 40 men, who to meet in a local pub or park. Rabbi Brad Greenstein leads a discussion relevant to Jewish dads. Guest rabbis will include Rabbi Michael Cahana and Rabbi Arthur Zuckerman. Dads of all ages and stages of parenting are welcome. Free. Next programs will at 7:30 pm, Dec. 6 and Feb. 19. For location and details, contact Jennifer Greenberg jgreenberg@nevehshalom.org or 503 293-7313.

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