TischPDX: Building new Jewish leaders on Portland’s east side

Photo: Participants of a local At The Well New Moon Circle enjoy a long summer evening in Portland. Ilana Cloud Strunin, one of the group’s co-founders and a member of TischPDX Cohort 1 is lower right. 

TischPDX launched in May of 2018 to create an accessible environment for young people on the eastside of Portland who are excited about their Judaism but may not have grown up in a traditional Jewish home and are hungry for Jewish learning, Jewish culture and for new ways of being Jewish.

“It took me until I was in my late 30s to find the education that I needed, and I want other young people to be able to access that much younger,” says Eleyna Fugman, co-founder and incoming executive director of TischPDX.

“One thing Rabbi Ariel Stone, Kalyn Culler Cohen and I discussed in forming TischPDX was that we needed to be creating pathways for young adult Jewish life to flourish,” says Eleyna. “What we have to do is follow the leadership of these young people, who already are doing things, and to tell them that they are leaders, sometimes they don’t know.”

TischPDX Torah study happening in a hip east side Sukkah, fall 2018.

TischPDX’s staff invites younger, unaffiliated Jews to apply to the TischPDX: Unaffiliated Jewish Leadership Incubator. The program lasts 10 months (with an option to extend to 16 months) for emerging Jewish leaders on Portland’s east side.

The required commitment of the cohort includes group meetings, seminars and classes for 4-5 hours a month and then one-on-one work for another 1-2 hours a month. Through this schedule, every participant gets both group and individual attention each month.

“The idea behind the cohort is that there are a lot of young adults and Jews who don’t feel like they fit into the mainstream but also want to do Jewish things and have ideas about what those things are,” says Eleyna. “Instead of the Jewish communal organization trying to create programming that attracts these people, why don’t we go see what they’re doing and give them support and resources.”

The project would not have been possible without local support and assistance from Congregation Shir Tikvah, who helped TischPDX get off the ground through fiscal sponsorship.

“We are grateful for the donors in our community who recognize the importance of a project like this and have stepped up to bring this vision to life,” says Eleyna.

Examples of past cohort members’ projects include facilitating regular Jewish new moon circles, queer mikveh experiences, a Shabbat racial justice book club and Jewish yoga classes.

One cohort collaborated with the organization At The Well that teaches Jewish women how to create and participate in Rosh Chodesh (new moon) circles. With their guidance, the member created a chapter in Portland that has been going strong for more than two years.

Another cohort member is a skilled yoga instructor with a strong Jewish background who wanted to develop a Jewish yoga curriculum. With mentorship from TischPDX, she has developed a yoga class for every Jewish holiday where she will teach about the history and ritual simultaneously with yoga poses.

Each cohort participation receives a stipend plus a learning benefit. “Before COVID, we encourage people to travel to learn about the different ways that people are doing Jewish programming around the country,” says Eleyna.

Cohorts 1 and 2 join for a weekend retreat and havdalah on Reed’s campus.

All of their connecting these days is done through Zoom, including Torah study, skills and leadership training. Eleyna said that they participated in many Shavuot online offerings through their own “Zoom room.” They were able to choose which programs they wanted to attend individually and then return to the Zoom room to discuss what they had learned.

She was glad that this cohort had about 10 months under their belt together before moving everything online. The new cohort begins in August, so there is a time in the fall when they both overlap so that they can learn from each other.

“A lot of people involved in our cohorts identify as queer, and I also do,” shares Eleyna. “So having a space when they know that that’s totally fine, and some of their leaders have that identity also, is very helpful.” In fact, 80% of cohorts thus far have identified as queer.

After every cohort, TischPDX conducts exit interviews. “The first cohort came out saying that they feel more connected to their Jewish identities and the Jewish community in Portland,” says Eleyna. “They also feel like they know more about Jewish holidays and feel more comfortable calling themselves a Jewish leader. All these things that we are trying to help them with.”

The deadline to apply for the next cohort is by midnight on July 1. New fellows will be notified of their acceptance by Aug. 3. If you have questions about whether you qualify for this program, please email Eleyna at eleyna@tischpdx.org or visit tischpdx.org.



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