PHOTO: Oregon Board of Rabbis (now former) Chair Eve Posen, left, bids a fond farewell to Portland Kollel founders Esther and Rabbi Tzvi Fischer at a June 13 going away event that drew about 225 people. The Fischers move to Detroit this month.
By Jenn Director Knudsen
Rabbi Tzvi and Esther Fischer and their children depart July 7 for Detroit, where they will resettle after 16 extremely productive years here in Portland. Their six children range from 7 to 20 years of age with the youngest three born here.
Rabbi Fischer and colleague Rabbi Chanan Spivak founded the Portland Kollel 16 years ago. Rabbi Fischer’s departure is a great loss, but it’s also an opportunity to reflect on the Kollel’s many accomplishments (and maybe a few lessons learned along the way). Rosh Kollel and CEO Rabbi Spivak assures the community that he and staff will carry the Kollel’s mantle into the future.
“There is most definitely a challenge in taking over Rabbi Fischer's responsibilities, since he undoubtedly has big shoes to fill,” says Rabbi Spivak. “That being said, I do feel very confident and poised to do so … (we) closely conferred on nearly all programs, communal issues and rabbinical questions that have come up.”
More questions – from a greater cross section of Portland’s diverse Jewish community than Rabbi Fischer at first anticipated – indeed came up.
In a recent Zoom interview from his nearly empty home, Rabbi Fischer reflected on the Kollel’s story to date.
The Kollel is meticulous in the numbers it keeps on individuals availing themselves of the organization, he says. Its goal remains to reach people seeking programming and meaningful and inspirational ways to connect to Judaism. The Kollel strives “to let them know they have a way to be Jewish in their own lives and in their experience of mitzvot.”
“We had roughly 1,000 individuals who were engaged in one way or another” in a given year, he says.
“There were some people who’d only pop in two, three times a year to get guidance,” on say Shabbat practice or kashrut, says Rabbi Fischer, who was ordained in 2002. Other folks became regular course attendees or participated in the three years it took to launch Rachel’s Well Community Mikvah.
Rabbi Fischer emphasizes that every interaction was important, whether a one-time inquiry – a “splash,” as he describes it – or something more monumental, equivalent to a Mount Rushmore. (The comparison is apt given his family starts its cross-country trek on July 7 with a number of stops along the way at national parks and Mount Rushmore.)
For example, Rabbi Fischer recounts a call just before the pandemic set in from a young family who’d just had their second child. The parents had grown up in the Reform Movement on the East Coast where Shabbat was present in their lives as children, but once they went to college, their Jewish practice dwindled.
They’d become interested in Eastern philosophies, but the birth of their second child sparked a realization. They were not interested in synagogue life, but wanted to create a Shabbat experience for themselves and their growing family.
Rabbi Fischer helped the couple create their own tradition – a special Friday evening meal that includes candlelighting, two challot and unplugging from all media to focus solely on family time.
“It was very individualized, it works for them, for that family,” Rabbi Fischer says. “It’s important because it provides for them an access to what they wanted but didn’t know how to get.”
One long-term accomplishment was adopting the practice of Daf Yomi, reading a page of Talmud every day for its seven-year cycle.
Among the roughly 14 classes he taught each week was Talmud study. Eight years ago, a small group approached Rabbi Fischer asking to engage in Daf Yomi. When he began leading the 6 am sessions, he thought the group soon would drop the daily practice of engaging in a page of Talmud for seven years straight.
Instead, he says, “the community and its members really surprised me,” with up to 35 regulars studying Talmud prior to COVID-19, even before the roosters roused. “Their desire to learn, connect, bring it alive for the future. That really is what community is, I’ve learned.”
Rick Haselton, in a speech at a mid-June farewell event, said Daf Yomi is “the ultimate teaching challenge,” likening it to a marathon, and but one example that Rabbi Fischer was born to teach.
And to lead.
“Rabbi Fischer played a huge role in making sure the mikvah (ritual bath) was a place for all Jews,” says Ronnie Malka of Rachel’s Well Community Mivkah, with which she also was intimately involved. The mikvah opened 3 1/2 years ago.
Rabbi Fischer joined the team of founders as one of its Orthodox representatives to ensure the mikvah was kosher and available to all Jews regardless of their level of practice or denomination. “He did this in the most subtle and kindest of ways,” Malka says. “He also brought humor to the team and a real sense of inclusivity for all in the community.”
Ever humble about the Kollel’s accomplishments on his watch, Rabbi Fischer says, “More than 50 percent of things we tried or did were duds.” He points to the cleverly named Y-Fi, or Young Families Initiative. “It didn’t go anywhere despite its great logo and cute name; there were several things like that.
I’ve had apology tours to fix situations; it’s not all glamour and glory,” he says with a laugh.
Ultimately, the Kollel maintains a very powerful legacy here in Portland of the big and the small stuff.
Haselton, who retired as Oregon Appeals Chief Judge in 2015, says the rabbi helped set a legal precedent for confidential communications between community members and rabbis’ wives, similar to communications between clergy and lay people.
“So much beyond that, so much more that we will never know: the relationships repaired, the marriages saved,” he says. “Rabbi Fischer and Esther’s gift to all of us (is) a lasting, immutable connection of community, chesed (kindness), mutual support. We are ... deeply saddened by this parting. But we rejoice in a new chapter, with renewed promise, in our beloved friends’ lives.”
Rabbi Spivak says his longtime colleague “has become like a brother to me.”
I’ll close with a personal reference. More than a decade ago, Rabbi Fischer helped a young woman find her way back to Judaism after a significant rough patch. Privileged to tell her story, I messed up by providing too many details to the community about her identity despite her request for anonymity.
At the time, I apologized to her and to Rabbi Fischer, and I then proceeded to carry a weight of guilt for years thereafter. In an attempt to finally unburden myself, about three years ago as the High Holidays approached, I contacted Rabbi Fischer.
He’d forgotten about the incident, appreciated my sentiment and noted it was time to let go of the guilt. Would I allow an elephant to put its full weight on my back, let alone carry it around all of my days? Of course not. With that message, I could finally slough off the guilt.
Another lesson greatly appreciated by a community member.
A new fund with the Oregon Jewish Community Foundation has been created in honor of the Fischers.
Learn more about the Rabbi Tzvi and Esther Fischer Kollel Future Fund at https://portlandkollel.org/support/.