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Jewish Journal

Purim with the cows

by David Suissa

March 27, 2008 | 6:00 pm

What blew me away about the synagogue wasn't the painting on the wall of the old Moroccan rebbe Meier Baal Ness, which I had never seen anywhere else -- not even in Sephardic synagogues -- and which brought back memories of going on pilgrimages with my family as a child in Morocco.

Nor was it the charity baskets -- one at the entrance of the shul that contained food for a homeless shelter, the other in the back of the shul that was part of a bat mitzvah charity project.

Nor was it the megillah reading by a Portuguese Jew with a melodic style and Ladino enunciation I had not heard before.

No, those things were interesting and aroused my curiosity, but what really blew me away were the cows.

Hundreds of cows.

Cows that I saw as I drove for miles through the rugged farmlands of Central Oregon before reaching a dirt road that took me to a little synagogue planted right in the middle of five acres of prairie desert.

It was a shul called Shalom Bayit, the pride and joy of the Jewish Community of Central Oregon.

The first person who greeted my daughter and me was a man in his mid-50s dressed in drag, with a bright green wig, lots of jewelry and a pretty red dress with an open back. His name was Rabbi Jay Shupack, and he reminded me that everyone must get dressed up on Purim and be really silly. He wasn't too impressed with the clown bowtie I was wearing on my all-white outfit, so he quickly rummaged through a basket of costume hats and offered me a few.

This was my introduction to the little Jewish community of Bend, Ore., where my daughter Shanni goes to school and where I found myself last week searching for a Purmim party and a megillah reading -- 700 miles and a few worlds away from Pico Boulevard.

As the rabbi was reading the megillah, engaging the congregants with questions and drawing parallels between Haman and Ahmadinejad, one thought preoccupied me: Who are all these Jews in weird costumes, and how did they get here?

There must be millions of stories throughout the ages of how little Jewish communities came to be, many of which we never hear about because they don't have any particular drama or relevance beyond their immediate surrounding -- quiet stories that stay forever lodged in the memory of the locals.

The story of the Jewish community of Bend is one of them. It's about a group of Jews from places as far away as South Africa, Denmark and Israel, and from areas all across America, who found themselves and each other on a wide-open land and became Jewish settlers.

It's about Jews like Izzie Oren, an Israeli rancher who fought in the Yom Kippur War and who decided one day to open a dude ranch in Oregon, who became a founding member of Shalom Bayit.

It's also about Alice Shapiro, who was living in Ohio 15 years ago when she decided to look for another place to live. She remembered that on a cross-country tour she took with her family years earlier, she had fallen in love with "the special air of Bend," a fragrant mountain and desert air she yearned to rediscover.

In the midst of the Purim partying, Shapiro recalled that when she first came to Bend, there were only a few Jewish families who would arrange occasional prayer services in church basements and private living rooms.

Eventually, they all decided to get serious and hire a rabbi, and out of the five rabbis they interviewed, guess which one they picked? The one who did a puppet show with his wife to tell the story of Chanukah -- during his interview.

Rabbi Jay Shupack, a yeshiva boy from Philadelphia who was part of the Jewish Renewal movement and who was once a cantor for a Chabad in San Diego, is one of those Renaissance Jews who's hard to figure out, because you get a sense he'd be comfortable with any Jew, from the most ultra-Orthodox to the most liberal.

He's also very comfortable with nature, which might explain why the Shalom Bayit synagogue is powered by 36 solar panels that produce one-third of the electricity they need, and that he dreams of building a windmill one day that will power the whole shul.

While Rabbi Shupack was going on about the great leaders of the shul -- people like Steve Leventhal, who was there at the very beginning -- he also mentioned the shul's resident "bubbe," Marion Tannen, who's almost 90, and its resident "zayde," Monroe Weinberg, who's in his 80s and who still writes songs that he plays on his ukulele to entertain the kids.

Today, the community has reached a milestone: With about 100 families and a budding Sunday school program, it has outgrown its space. So they've set up a committee that is helping plan their future and answer questions like: Should they do a major expansion? Should they invest in more educators? Should they start a new building fund?

You hear all these familiar issues, and it's tempting to think that Shalom Bayit is just like any other shul you might find here in Pico-Robertson.

But it's hard to forget the cows.

I took a walk outside during the Purim festivities, and as twilight fell on a land that looked like it reached all the way to the sun, I couldn't help asking myself: Which neighborhood is more Jewish, the one with a hundred shuls and kosher markets and storefronts that bathe your eye in Jewishness, or the neighborhood with one tribe of Jews surrounded by miles of endless land?

I thought I knew the answer a week ago, but after my Purim in Bend, I'm not so sure.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

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