Mission and History
The mission of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education is to interpret the Oregon Jewish experience, explore the lessons of the Holocaust and foster intercultural conversations.
Jews have lived in Oregon for more than 165 years, but it is only in the last 30 years have we sought to publicly honor and document our contributions. In 1989 Rabbi Joshua Stampfer led a community conversation on the need for a museum focused on Jewish cultural life. The community members that gathered for that conversation became the founding board of the Oregon Jewish Museum (OJM). The museum operated as a “museum without walls”, opening with the Jews of Greece at Multnomah County Library’s Central Library. Over the next decade the museum brought exhibitions of Jewish interest to Portland, hosted at a variety of area venues. A 1995 merger with the inactive Jewish Historical Society of Oregon resulted in OJM taking stewardship of the archival materials, artifacts, photographs, and oral history interviews the organization had collected beginning in 1973. Although the Oregon Historical Society generously provided workspace to house and accession the collection, that merger prompted the museum to refocus its mission and to find appropriate space in which to properly care for and exhibit that collection.
In 1999 the museum moved into its public first space at Montgomery Park, with modest room for exhibitions and collections storage. The inaugural exhibition, Jews Germany Memory, photographs by Edward Serotta, drew 300 people on opening night. As the need for a more permanent space became urgent, in 2000 OJM relocated to a storefront in Old Town, where it launched its first large scale, curated exhibition. A Call to Serve: Oregon Jews in the Armed Services opened on Veterans Day, 2001 two months after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. This was the first time that the museum made a call to the community to come forward with their objects, photographs, and stories of military service. The exhibit was a huge success and did much to increase both the visibility of the museum in the community and the credibility of the museum’s project. It was a model that has been taken forward from that time, always resulting in new research and often in growth for the collection.
In late 2009, as membership and community attendance continued to grow, OJM moved to a much larger building in NW Portland, offering expanded exhibition space and enabling the staff to develop public programing and a small gift shop. Public lectures and films complemented exhibitions as diverse as Transport, featuring the work of Henk Pander and Esther Podemski, Project Mah Jong, Sukkah PDX, That’s All Folks, the story of Mel Blanc, and Auto/Biography: Portraits of People With Cars.
In 2014 OJM merged with the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center, which was founded in 1984, taking on an expanded mission as the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education (OJMCHE). This merger enriched the museum in countless ways: the education staff now includes a full-time Holocaust educator; as stewards of the Oregon Holocaust Memorial in Portland’s Washington Park we bring thousands of school children to both the Memorial and to the Museum; and we continue to be the only community repository for the Jewish experience in Oregon. The merger fundamentally strengthened the museum’s core mission by deepening the focus on Jewish values and traditions. OJMCHE believes the Holocaust provides one of the most effective subjects for examining basic moral concerns. It simultaneously addresses universal issues of intolerance and the dangers of denying diversity. For many young Oregonians, an OJMCHE program has been their first encounter with the history of the Holocaust.
OJMCHE is at a transformational moment in its history. In 2016 the OJMCHE Board purchased the building at 724 NW Davis Street, on the North Park Blocks in downtown Portland, doubling the museum’s size. An auditorium, state of the art storage for archives and artifact collections, education lab, gift shop and café allows for robust public programming with numerous collaborative opportunities. Three core exhibits anchor the museum: Discrimination and Resistance, An Oregon Primer, which identifies discrimination as a tool used to affect varied groups of people over the history of this region; The Holocaust, An Oregon Perspective, a history of the Holocaust that employs the stories of Oregon survivors; and Oregon Jewish Stories, an installation focused on the experience of the Jews of Oregon. OJMCHE’s first exhibition in the new facilities is an ambitious exhibition of work by internationally celebrated Russian Jewish artist Grisha Bruskin, ALEFBET: The Alphabet of Memory features five large-scale tapestries, with related artists’ drawings and gouache paintings.
From its humble start as a “museum without walls” OJMCHE has become a vital part of Portland’s cultural landscape. Within the new museum, our exhibitions and programs celebrate and explore, in the broadest terms, Jewish contributions to world culture and ideas, issues of identity and the forces of prejudice.