We are fortunate to live in the United States of America. We live in the most affluent, free and open society -- more so than any culture has ever experienced. However, an open society can bring about existential challenges that impact one’s ethnic/religious/cultural community and people, including the following:
• Loss of identity among younger members
• Limited connection to one’s culture and history
• Lack of knowledge or understanding of the tragedies during World War II as generations move forward
• High rates of intermarriage and assimilation
• People living further out from the original population center
• Multiple organizations independently raising funds from the same small community with finite returns for that community
• Potential loss of older, more committed donors to specific causes
I share the above comments not solely in relationship to the Jewish community; instead, my eyes were recently opened to the fact these issues are not ours alone.
Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet with Mari Watanabe, the Executive Director of the Oregon Nikkei Foundation. The mission of the Oregon Nikkei Endowment is “to preserve and honor the history and culture of Japanese Americans in the Pacific Northwest, to educate the public about the Japanese American experience during World War II, and to advocate for the protection of civil rights for all Americans.” Mari called me at the suggestion of Judy Margles, Executive Director of the Oregon Jewish Museum.
I met Mari at the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center on NW 2nd Avenue. We took a quick tour of the Legacy Center exhibit detailing the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II, including the internment camps and the loss of 100 buildings in that area of Portland then known as “Japantown.” I was moved by the museum exhibit as this was a period of American history I knew little about except hearing George Takei (aka Mr. Sulu on Star Trek) talk about his own childhood experiences in an internment camp.
It was during the illuminating conversation that followed that Mari shared with me the challenges I listed above as key factors facing the Japanese American community in Portland today.
Mari wanted to meet to learn from the Jewish community how we build our community and sustain ourselves. She thought our efforts could help her with the Japanese American community. I quickly realized we are struggling with the same issues and no one has all the answers. At the conclusion of the meeting Mari and I discussed bringing other ethnic-groups together to share our current experiences. This is less about an inter-ethnic dialogue and more about ways to build a future within our own independent communities during this time of openness.
As we prepare for the Passover holiday, we are obligated to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The rabbis taught us that we should never forget our past and teach future generations about our heritage, culture, and our people. Unfortunately, memory today runs very short – for most a maximum of three generations. (How many of us can name our eight great-grandparents, much less know their personal stories?) We must recognize that our society has open boundaries and acceptance is easier today than perhaps at any time in history. That makes maintaining one’s people, culture, community a difficult proposition.
On Monday night, the majority of American Jews will begin their seder by saying, “Let all those who are hungry come and eat.” Not only are we welcoming the stranger who may be hungry for food, we are also inviting those who are hungry for the richness of Jewish life. Let us invite and welcome all to our seder table. And, during what is often the highlight of the seder (besides getting to the part when we can eat), when the youngest child gets to ask the four questions, perhaps we can add just one more – what will we do to maintain Jewish life for generations to come?
Best wishes to you and your family for a wonderful Passover holiday.
PS -- Speaking of Japan, the Jewish Federation is grateful for the over $43,000 that has been contributed towards our Japan Disaster Relief Fund. This includes over $800 raised by students at the Portland Jewish Academy. The effort at PJA was launched by a wonderful 8th grade student who wanted to educate and make a difference with her classmates. We do have a remarkable and generous Jewish community.
Our partner, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) worked with the now returning Israel Defense Forces Field Hospital that was operating in Minamisanriko. After treating hundreds of patients, the team left the majority of its medical equipment to be used by local doctors providing care there. In addition, food, fuel, blankets, and other emergency supplies have been donated.