By Judith Margles
For almost two centuries, immigrants from everywhere have found haven in Oregon. All have had the freedom to choose Oregon as a destination; some arrive here fleeing economic hardship, political oppression and religious persecution. Settling in, they all become Oregonians, sharing every new American’s exciting firsts: finding work and a place to live, learning the language, and forging a community. These endeavors unite immigrants as they settle into a new world.
– Opening text, Settling In, an exhibit at the Oregon Jewish Museum
Settling In, an exhibit about immigrants at the Oregon Jewish Museum, seeks to broaden the familiar and often de-humanizing portrayal of immigrants in news media and popular culture by revealing similarities and differences that continue to shape immigrant experience. The exhibit showcases two waves of immigrants who arrived in Portland, Oregon a century apart: Russian and Eastern European Jews in the early 1900s and contemporary immigrants from Burma, Cambodia, Congo, Cuba, Eritrea and Somalia.
Russian and Eastern European Jews benefited from Neighborhood House, a settlement house founded by the National Council of Jewish Women in South Portland. Today’s immigrants find analogous support at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO), whose center eases the entry of newly arrived families into American society and culture. Through compelling and sometimes astonishing stories the exhibit highlights the old and new realities of the immigrant experience.
The lesson is universal: the experiences of assimilation, cultural retention and transmission faced by 21st century immigrants recapitulate the experiences that Jewish immigrants faced 100 years ago.
A grant from the Oregon Heritage Commission (OHC) was one of the first received for the project. We used the OHC funds for the oral history component of the project, for which we conducted interviews and took photographs of seven IRCO clients and researched and pulled out oral histories from the museum collection. The exhibit and accompanying public programs have had innumerable benefits, including robust attendance and good coverage by the press. The exhibit has also appealed to a much more diverse audience than typically visits the Oregon Jewish Museum.
Judith Margles is the Director of the Oregon Jewish Museum.