By the time Blue Thread‘s Miriam Josefsohn set foot in Temple Beth Israel that night in September, 1912, there had been a Jewish community in Portland for more than sixty years.
In 1858, a group of Jewish men formally resolved to form a congregation in the city, which boasted about 100 stores and 2,000 residents. Oregon was still a territory then—it entered the Union in 1859. The first Sabbath services—held Friday nights and Saturday mornings—took place in a loft over a blacksmith shop on First Avenue and Morrison Street. Not what you’d call elegant surroundings.
Congregation Beth Israel built its first building in 1861, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Oak Street. The Oregonian called it “quite an ornament” for the southwestern part of the city. And it certainly was, with seats for 200 people and a gas-lit chandelier.
Portland exploded with new residents over the next two decades, and the Jewish community thrived. Under the inspiration of dry-goods merchant Louis Fleischner, the congregation built a new temple in 1889 in southwest Portland at 12th and Main. This wooden structure boasted twin copper-clad minarets and stained glass windows.
Arson destroyed this second Temple Beth Israel on December 29, 1923, at the height of Oregon’s Ku Klux Klan era. The building’s caretaker, Theodore Olson, risked his life trying to retrieve as many prayer books as he could. The nearby First Presbyterian Church offered the congregation their space for Sabbath services.
Five years later, a new building housed the congregation—this one in northwest Portland at 19th and Flanders. Miriam Josefsohn would have been amazed!