In the mid-1800s, Jewish immigrants looking for greener pastures and open skies headed west to Oregon, where they built the first mercantile businesses selling to newly arrived farmers, settlers and explorers. In the following decades, Jews would play a foundational role in the state’s development.
“There’s no real appreciation in other parts of the country for how well developed the Jewish community is in Oregon,” says Rabbi Joshua Stampfer. He is one of the city’s longest-tenured rabbis and acts as a patriarch of Oregon’s contemporary Jewish community, and I recently interviewed him to better understand the heritage of Oregon’s Jewish community.
Stampfer is one reason Oregon retains a vibrant Jewish population. The 95-year-old Rabbi Emeritus at Congregation Neveh Shalom moved to Portland in 1952 after serving in the Israeli army and his first rabbinical position in Omaha, Nebraska. As a community leader, Stampfer has helped Jews in Oregon build a deeper connection to their heritage. He ushered in a new era of understanding and leadership by connecting local Jewish sects along with other leading rabbis across the city. His influence grew internationally as he worked to bridge cultural-religious gaps and traveled on peacekeeping visits to the Middle East.
Today an eclectic Jewish community calls Oregon home — relishing its heritage with a recently expanded museum as well as spiritual and cultural events that happen year-round. Visiting these sites will give you a greater understanding and appreciation of how the Jewish people helped build the state of Oregon.
“There’s no real appreciation in other parts of the country for how well developed the Jewish community is in Oregon,” says Rabbi Joshua Stampfer.
Where It All Started
With his unmatched knowledge of Jewish heritage, Stampfer sheds light on how early Jews in Oregon helped lay the foundations for the state’s commercial development.
Jews organized some of the earliest outposts in fur and lumber trading along the Oregon Coast, Stampfer tells me. Shortly after coastal development started in the mid-1800s, defectors from the California gold rush began moving north. Jews provided essential storefronts, selling supplies to miners and farmers to restock their mines and fields. Their services were more than welcome to some of Oregon’s earliest communities that were in need of the basic necessities. Places like Jacksonville in Southern Oregon became important hubs of commerce, fueled in large part by Jewish entrepreneurs.
In Portland two Jewish businesspeople built one of the city’s most important buildings: the original Meier & Frank store. Aaron Meier’s storefront from 1857 no longer exists, but the remnants of his and the Frank family’s work exists on Fifth Avenue as a relic of 19th-century Portland. The current building was completed in 1898, and Aaron’s wife, Jeannette, would go on to run the empire for decades after his death. As the company expanded to other states, it became the fourth largest department store in America by 1914.
The store became a centerpiece of the downtown core and complemented Pioneer Courthouse Square, when it was completed in 1984. What was once the flagship store of the region’s preeminent homeware and clothing chain is now home to The Nines Hotel. Its history is remembered with a plaque on its facade.
As the Oregon’s biggest city, Portland is essential to exploring and appreciating the state’s Jewish culture.
Any visit should start with the recently expanded Oregon Jewish Museum in downtown Portland. The new facility also houses the Center for Holocaust Education, a rotating exhibit, and a permanent display of Oregon Jewish memorabilia and artifacts. In addition to the exhibit space, the museum and its education center also host a variety of events year-round. The Oregon Holocaust Memorial in Washington Park offers additional perspective for visitors.
Perhaps Oregon’s largest Jewish event is the annual Portland Jewish Film Festival hosted by the NW Film Center and hosted at various locations. The event features a wide variety of international producers, directors and actors tackling important modern issues in Jewish and Israeli life.
In previous years, most screenings took place at the Portland Art Museum, which itself benefited from the philanthropy of one of Oregon’s most prominent Jewish families and most generous philanthropists: The Schnitzer family has made more than $80 million in charitable gifts, which have helped refurbish the art museum, restored what’s now known as the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and established the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies at Portland State University.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Portland also maintains an online community calendar that is continually updated with most Jewish-related events happening around the city. As the yearly slate continually shuffles, some events may switch locations and dates from the year prior, so it’s important to check before confirming plans.
The Willamette Valley
Another place to see the state’s community in action is at Oregon Hillel in Eugene, part of a nationwide community of collegiate groups aiming to promote Jewish culture and activity on campus.
Hillel at the University of Oregon formally started in 1993 with community members and a small group of students on campus hosting Shabbat potlucks. While the Jewish Student Union had served the campus since the 1970s, there was no formal organization within a broader national group. Hillel continued to grow in Eugene through the 2000s, eventually opening a second branch at Oregon State University in 2014. Today, they serve some 2,000 students between both campuses and continue to host a range of programming through the school year.
Continuing south, the thespian enclave of Ashland has an eclectic Jewish community with three active synagogues. Temple Emek Shalom started in 1973 as the Rogue Valley Jewish Community until a permanent building was purchased in 1983. Havurah Shir Hadash offers a more spiritual, progressive practice, while Chabad of Southern Oregon has a chapter in the city and is the most conservative option.
The state’s Jewish heritage is resonant just about anywhere you look.