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Portland Jews


PORTLAND, Oregon's largest city with a population of approximately 1.5 million, situated at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers on the west coast of the United States; Jewish population (2005) approximately 25,000. The earliest Jewish settlers arrived from Central Europe in the early 1850s. The first Jewish woman, Mrs. Weinshank, opened a boarding house in 1854. Early occupations included peddling and storekeeping. Pioneer Jews, mostly concerned with making a living, recognized that the community would grow only if religious needs could be met. On May 2, 1858, eight men gathered in Portland's National Hotel to establish Beth Israel. The congregation officially organized with 21 male members. Reverend Samuel M. Laski conducted services above a livery stable and blacksmith shop. Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco loaned the torah and shofar, which were eventually purchased. In a town that sported five churches, one school and 55 saloons, Portland's first synagogue emerged. Portland quickly became Oregon's major Jewish community. Prussian and Polish Jews founded Ahavai Shalom in 1869. In 1883 a group of Russian Jews, formerly of North Dakota, established what is now the Conservative congregation Talmud Torah. Neveh Zedek, Portland's Orthodox congregation, was established in 1900, merging with Talmud Torah two years later. Ahavai Shalom and Neveh Zedek Talmud Torah merged in 1962 to form Congregation Neveh Shalom, Portland's major Conservative synagogue. Russian Jews established the Orthodox Congregation Shaarie Torah in 1905. In 1911 a group of Sephardi Jews from the island of Rhodes founded Congregation Ahavat Achim, and in 1912 Eastern European immigrants founded Kesser Israel, the only Portland synagogue still in its original location. Reconstructionist Havurah Shalom was founded in 1979. P'nai Or, founded in 1992, is an egalitarian, Jewish Renewal congregation.

Eastern European immigrants had begun arriving around 1900 and became the core of the Portland Jewish community. Settling at the southern end of the center of Portland's downtown, they formed a nearly self- sufficient community lasting more than 50 years. Everything – a kosher shopping district, five synagogues and a community center – contributed to a lively Jewish culture that intermixed with other immigrant groups who also lived in South Portland. The neighborhood changed radically in the late 1950s with an urban renewal project designed to replace residences with a business and commercial district. By this time, many of the second and third generation had moved to the suburbs. Most remaining residents were forced to move. Shops closed or relocated, buildings were razed and a unique part of Portland's history ended.

By the time the immigration from Eastern Europe halted in 1924, Portland Jews worked mostly as merchants and storekeepers or in family networks. Although Portland Jews faced discriminatory practices in country clubs and certain residential areas, for the most part acceptance came easily. Following World War II, as shifts in economic mobility provided more occupational choices, Jews gained access to the middle class and positions in the non-Jewish world in professions such as doctors, lawyers, and upper level managers.

In the early 21st century Portland's vibrant Jewish community supported numerous communal institutions including a Jewish community center, established in 1914 by the local B'nai B'rith Lodge (founded 1879), the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, two elementary day schools, Cedar Sinai Park (a Jewish facility for the elderly), the Oregon Jewish Community Foundation, Jewish Family and Child Service, Northwest Campus of Jewish Life/Chabad Lubavitch of Oregon, the Institute for Judaic Studies and the Oregon Jewish Museum. Reed College and Portland State University both have Jewish Studies faculty positions. Portland has had many distinguished rabbis, including Stephen S. *Wise and Jonah B. *Wise (Beth Israel) and in recent years, Emanuel Rose (Beth Israel), Joshua Stampfer (Neveh Shalom), and Yonah Geller (Shaarei Torah) each of whom served their communities for more than 40 years. In 2005, Portland sustained 17 congregations. Prominent Jewish civic, business, and cultural leaders have made Portland their home (see *Oregon ). The city has seen five Jewish mayors – the first was Bernard Goldsmith (1869–1871) and the most recent was Vera Katz (1992–2004).

[Judith Margles (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.