Eugene's Or haGan on steep growth curve
By Deborah Moon Seldner
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Just one year after a group of 10 people asked Rabbi Jonathan Seidel to serve as the spiritual leader for their minyan, Or haGan has grown into a multi-faceted congregation of about 20 families and has applied for membership in the Conservative movement.
Or haGan, Light of the Garden Jewish Community, has a religious school for first through sixth grade, b'nai mitzvah preparation, a high school youth group, adult education, weekly Shabbat services, tzedakah programs, an office and a board.
Seidel said the name, pronounced like Oregon, came to his wife, Linda Rifkin, in a dream.
"We hope to bring light to the garden of our beautiful state," he said. "We want to spread peace and ahavas Israel (love of the land and people of Israel), learning and Yiddishkeit in Lane County."
Seidel said the new congregation has good relations with Eugene's two small Orthodox congregations as well as with Eugene's largest congregation, Temple Beth Israel, a Reconstructionist synagogue. Seidel served as assistant rabbi at TBI, while also teaching at the University of Oregon, from 2001 to 2003.
"I'm a trans-denominational rabbi," said Seidel. "I believe all congregations can work together to create peace in the community—Shalom Bayit. I want to work with Temple and the Orthodox congregations to further Jewish education."
Seidel said he hopes that Eugene's rabbis and Jewish educators can form a Jewish education council and an academy of Jewish studies in a collaborative effort to take Jewish learning for adults and teens to a higher level. He said he believes adult education on the land, politics and people of modern Israel is essential.
Seidel said he also wants to empower adults in synagogue skills and to maintain a democratic leadership in the synagogue.
"It's everybody's tradition—not just the rabbis," he said.
A large donation from the Joseph Ash Fund for Jewish Education has enabled Or haGan to start a religious school for first through sixth grade, which will open in late September with three Jewish educators—Yona Ash, Daniel Ivy and Deb Strolich—under the direction of Seidel. The school will meet in the congregation's office at the Pearl Buck Center, 5100 W. Amazon Dr., Eugene.
Orot haGan (lights of the garden) Religious School will meet Sundays and Thursdays with an optional Hebrew ulpan on Tuesdays. The Sunday classes will focus on Torah and cultural arts. Thursdays students study Torah and Jewish studies. Those who chose to attend the Tuesday classes will study modern Hebrew. The traditional curriculum is based on materials from Behrman House publishers, said Seidel.
Seidel said he also plans to lead Torah in the Woods programs for both students and families.
"We hope to sprout the seedlings of Jewish knowledge in the garden," said Seidel, who has been active in the environmental movement for many years, including serving on the board of the former Northwest Jewish Environmental Project.
Or haGan applied for membership in the Conservative movement in August, said Seidel, noting Conservative leaders have been very encouraging and supportive.
Seidel said he enjoys the "holy struggle in the middle" that he believes typifies the Conservative movement. He said he believes equal access for women is consistent with Halachah, though he understands why the Orthodox community does not.
"The center is sometimes of battleground of ideas and practices," he said.
Or haGan holds Shabbat services every Saturday morning and occasional Friday evenings at St. Jude's Catholic Church.
Seidel said his congregation has also received a lot of support from Portland's Jewish community.
"I am very grateful to a number of congregations and rabbis in Portland and to the goodwill of the congregants of TBI in Eugene," he said.
Seidel teaches Judaic studies at both the University of Oregon and Portland State University. He said he enjoys commuting between the cities by train, which gives him time to "meditate, daven and work."
This fall, Seidel will be teaching "Women, Sexuality and Judaism" Wednesday evenings at PSU. The class is a survey of women and sexuality in Jewish law and practice from the perspectives of religious studies, anthropology, history, literary and cultural studies. Topics include marriage and divorce, the status of the witch and the sorceress, Niddah (laws of purity), clothing and cosmetics, and women's religious life.
Seidel received his doctorate in Near Eastern Studies in 1996 at the University of California, Berkeley. He also studied at Oberlin College and the Jewish Theological Seminary and was a Fullbright-Hayes scholar at Cambridge University. He was ordained by the Renewal movement in 2004.
He has taught Judaic studies and religion at Stanford, UC-Berkeley, UC-Davis, UC-Santa Cruz and the University of Arizona. Seidel served as a spiritual leader for a number of Jewish communities in California and Arizona. He also has an extensive background in interfaith work, Jewish music (he served as a hazzan for more than 20 years), Jewish education and environmental activism.
He has edited a volume entitled "Divination and Magic in the Ancient World" (Brill 2002) and has published articles on Midrash, Jewish folklore, magic, history, rabbinics, modern Jewish thought and politics. He is currently writing a history of Jewish healing and magic.
He and his wife have two daughters, Maya, 14, and Elah, 11.
For more information on Or haGan, visit the Web site at www.orhagan.org or call 541-683-8021.