Common Ground

A museum devoted to Jewish heritage in Oregon offers hope and understanding for us all.

When a teacher notices a student drawing swastikas or a school finds racist graffiti on its grounds, one of the first calls is often to Portland’s Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education (724 NW Davis St, 503-226-3600), whose mission is to interpret the Oregon Jewish experience, explore the difficult lessons of the Holocaust, and foster intercultural discussion. “We’re uniquely positioned to use the moral imperative of understanding the Holocaust as a way to teach why discrimination is not OK,” says executive director Judith Margles.

A prominent presence in Northwest Portland since its inception in 1999, the museum moved and reopened in June inside the historic 1916 DeSoto Building, which formerly housed the Museum of Contemporary Craft, on the Northwest Park Blocks. A larger, more permanent home had become a necessity to accommodate expanding membership and attendance as well as a growing collection of archival materials, especially after the museum added the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center and became the steward of the Oregon Holocaust Memorial in Washington Park.

The beautifully designed, well-organized new space has “put us on an international platform,” Margles says, citing the museum’s first exhibition as an example. It ran through September and featured the tapestries of renowned Russian Jewish artist Grisha Bruskin, who had never before allowed his work to leave Russia.

The new home also includes a café, Lefty’s—which honors classic Jewish delis—a gift shop, a children’s play area, and more gallery space. Opportunities for public engagement have also increased—from public tours on Wednesdays to regular kids’ story hours and other events. The museum’s new show, “I am This: Art by Oregon Jewish Artists,” runs through February 4 and showcases works by a number of luminaries, including Mark Rothko.

On the second floor, some of the permanent exhibits, such as “Discrimination and Resistance, An Oregon Primer,” carry out the museum’s objective to promote tolerance and inclusivity by shining a light on the state’s often difficult legacy of discrimination against ethnic, racial, religious, and sexual minorities. “We’re not activists—we’re not going to protest on the streets,” says Margles. “But we can teach the history.” Signs, articles, and photos break discrimination down into its component parts—scapegoating, intimidation, appropriation, segregation, exclusion, and dehumanization—and empower observers to confront and discuss these phenomena.

“How do you resist?” she asks. “You persist, you create, you organize, you celebrate, you protest, you reform.”

—Kathleen Bauer | Photos courtesy Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education