Jewish Community of Spokane

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 7/04/2008
  • Essay 8640

The first synagogue in the state opened in Spokane in 1892, but the city's Jewish history began even before the little village of Spokane Falls existed. In 1879, Indians told Simon Berg, the first known Jewish resident, that he was not the first "egg-eater" they had met. Apparently, other Jewish traders observing the kosher dietary rules had visited before. Berg built a store in tiny Spokane Falls in 1879 and by 1885 he had been joined by at least a dozen other Jewish merchants. The town's first Jewish services were held in a private home in 1885. In 1890, the Jewish community met to organize a Reform congregation, called Congregation Emanu-El. On September 14, 1892, they dedicated their synagogue, Temple Emanu-El, the first in the state by four days, since Seattle's Ohaveth Sholum opened within a week. Jewish merchants and financiers played a key role in the development of Spokane during its early decades. A second congregation, the Orthodox Keneseth Israel congregation was formed in 1901. Both congregations thrived until they merged in 1966 and built a new, modern temple, the Temple Beth Shalom. It remains the center of Spokane's Jewish community today. The city's Jewish population has remained steady through the decade, yet is estimated at less than 1 percent of the metropolitan area's population.

Spokane's First Jewish Community

When Simon Berg, a German immigrant, arrived in Spokane Falls to build his general merchandise store in 1879, the dusty pioneer village was little more than a scattering of wooden storefronts. Berg later said that he knew he couldn’t have been the first Jewish trader to visit the area; Spokane Indians told him that earlier traders had been “egg-eaters,” which Berg interpreted to mean Jewish. Many Jewish traders avoided meat when away from home because of kosher dietary restrictions. They survived, to the apparent fascination of the Indians, on hard-boiled eggs.

Berg built his store at the corner of Howard and Main and was soon joined by other Jewish merchants. At least a dozen Jewish merchants and entrepreneurs had arrived by 1885.

That year, the first Jewish divine services were held in the home of one of those merchants, S. Auerbach, who served as the fill-in cantor and rabbi. Services were held in various private homes for the next five years. The first recorded Jewish death in Spokane was in 1886 -- a 9-year-old who died of scarlet fever. The child was buried in the city’s general cemetery and later re-buried when a Jewish cemetery was established. The first recorded Jewish birth was in 1888.

By the time of Spokane's Great Fire, in August 1889, at least another 15 Jewish merchants had arrived, according to an account written in 1912 by Spokane’s Rabbi David Levine (published in N. W. Durham’s “History of the City of Spokane”). Most of these were German or Austrian Jews whose families had been in the United States for 30 or 40 years. Many arrived in Spokane from Seattle, California, or the East Coast, and were relatively well to do.

Levine gives a list of those early Jewish arrivals, with surnames including Holland, Heller, Michael, Rosenhaupt, Baum, Barmon, Oppenheimer, Loewenberg, Auerbach and Schwartz -- many of which remain common in Spokane today.

An Official Congregation

By 1890, private residences were insufficient for holding services. So the Jewish community gathered at Concordia Hall in 1890 to organize as an official congregation of 52 members. It called itself Congregation Emanu-El, modeled in part after Temple Emanu-El in New York City. It was a Reform congregation in contrast to the more traditional Orthodox synagogues. Some Emanu-El board members in the early years even used the word “church” when speaking of the congregation, according to Family of Strangers: Building a Jewish Community in Washington State, by Molly Cone, Howard Droker, and Jacqueline Williams.

The congregation immediately began raising funds and working on plans to build its own temple. Meanwhile, it held services in Spokane’s Unitarian Church, including, in June, the first “Jewish confirmation services” in the state. The paper wrote that the ceremony compared favorably to "such ceremonies in large eastern cities," and the church was "filled to its utmost capacity" ("Impressive Confirmation").

Washington's First Synogogue

Seattle’s Ohaveth Sholum had beaten Spokane to the punch by a year when it came to forming a congregation, but Congregation Emanu-El was quicker on the construction. A story in the Spokane Review on April 2, 1892, explained that the Congregation Emanu-El had officially accepted architect Herman Preusse’s plans for a new temple.

“It will surprise many people to learn that the temple, soon to be erected by the congregation Emmanuel [sic] of this city will be the first Jewish house of worship in the states of Washington and Idaho,” said a Spokane Review editorial on January 13, 1892. “This fact is creditable alike to the city and to the Jewish element of the community” ("First Jewish Temple").

On September 14, 1892, Temple Emanu-El, at the corner of 3rd Avenue and Madison Street, was officially dedicated "with appropriate ceremony," according to Levine's account. Seattle’s much larger, gothic-style Ohaveth Sholum synagogue was constructed around the same time but wasn’t dedicated until September 18, 1892.

The booming city of Spokane was justifiably proud of Temple Emanu-El, which stood tall over muddy 3rd Avenue, topped by an impressive onion-style dome. It was a frame building with a stone foundation, 40 feet by 70 feet, and cost about $3,500 (raised through donations).

Rocky Patches

However, the new temple hit some rocky patches in its first decade. Its first rabbi, Rabbi Emanuel Schreiber, left not long after the temple was dedicated – the result, apparently, of factionalism that had developed within the congregation. No rabbi came to replace him until 1895. Services, apparently, were still held, but without a rabbi there was little or no religious instruction.

“A beautiful temple stands silent and a menace to the religious training of our young, instead of being a haven of instruction,” bemoaned a Spokane letter writer in the periodical The American Israelite in 1894 (Cone).

By 1895, a new rabbi had been hired, religious instruction resumed and the mortgage on the temple was paid off. This reflected the growing prominence and prosperity of the Jewish community in Spokane, which was estimated at about 1.5 percent of the city’s population.

Jews Contribute to Spokane

The list was long of the Jewish community's contributions to the city during this period: Albert Heller erected the first brick building on Howard Street; Harry Rosenhaupt was elected to the state legislature in 1899 and was re-elected several times; and Nathan Toklas erected The Great Eastern Block, now known as the Peyton Building, according to The History of the Jews of Spokane, Wash., a pamphlet written in 1926 by a member of the community, Moses N. Janton,

One prominent member of the Jewish community, Simon Oppenheimer, was among the first Spokane businessmen to go to Holland to seek business capital. He came back with $300,000 in Dutch capital and used it to build a sawmill and a flour mill. He later had a hand in starting two banks. He also started an important trend in Spokane’s economic history.  By the middle of the 1890s, much of Spokane was financed by Dutch capital, and Oppenheimer was referred to as “The Biggest Man in Spokane.”

The Jewish community's place in Spokane's economic life was illustrated by a 1912 list Levine compiled of the "lines of business" in which Jewish owners were either "in the lead or counted with the leaders": wholesale and retail crockery, wholesale and retail toys, wholesale and retail bakeries, wholesale and retail cigars, wholesale postcards, wholesale liquors, wholesale and retail men's clothing, banks, suits, millinery, ladies' tailoring establishments, department stores, real estate, insurance, theaters, shoes, drugs, jewelry, hides and junk, furs, furniture, groceries, and optical goods.

New Arrivals

Many of these merchants had been part of a second influx of Jewish immigrants, who had begun to arrive in Spokane around 1900. These new arrivals were different from the well-off, well-assimilated German Jews. They tended to be from Eastern Europe, to speak Yiddish and to consider themselves Orthodox Jews, not Reform Jews.

“This was very typical of the American Jewish story, repeated hundreds of times in cities all over America,” said Rabbi Jacob Izakson of Spokane’s major synagogue today, Temple Beth Shalom. “The German Jews came first and were well-established by the time the Eastern European Jews came over” (Izakson).

So in 1901, Spokane’s Orthodox Jews gathered and launched Congregation Keneseth Israel. They worshiped at the Odd Fellows Hall until 1909, when they finished their own synagogue, the Keneseth Israel Synagogue at 4th Avenue and Adams Street. This Orthodox synagogue and the Reform synagogue just a few blocks away formed the two bookends for Spokane’s growing Jewish community.

Keneseth Israel, which had 125 members by 1926, arranged for kosher meat to be prepared for Jews who obeyed the dietary laws. It also acquired a Jewish cemetery, which the congregation named Mt. Nebo, on Government Way (next to Greenwood Memorial Park). It remains Spokane’s sacred Jewish burial ground.

In those early decades, friction existed between what one woman described in A Family of Strangers as the “temple kids and the synagogue kids.”

“The synagogue people didn’t consider us as knowledgeable Jews and they let us know it,” the book quoted one woman as saying, who grew up in Temple Emanu-El (Cone).

Refined, Just, and Upright

However, the community came together in many ways, especially in the B’nai B’rith, a Jewish social, charitable, and service organization. By 1926, the Jewish community, which was estimated at about 400 people, was known for being especially generous to the city’s charities. When the community donated a large sum of money to the city’s Community Chest, the organizers asked them if they wanted to direct the money toward a Jewish institution. The reply, according to Janton, was “We will only give, but not take.”

Janton also called his community “remarkably refined, just and upright” and that practically none has “a criminal record of any kind.” Apparently, the Jewish community policed itself, as evidenced by a 1909 Spokesman-Review story which said that two “alleged Jewish parasites” accused of “living off the earnings of Mollie Miller, a fallen woman,” had been arrested “at the insistence of the Jewish Brotherhood of Spokane, which proposes not only to drive out of the city, but also to punish, all vicious characters of the Hebrew race” ("Two of Trio").

In 1920, the old wooden Temple Emanu-El was showing its age. The congregation found a lot at 8th Avenue and Walnut Street and began building a new, much larger brick temple with a stunning Roman classical design. The front of the building featured six Corinthian columns and an inscription in stone: “Have We Not All One Father.”

Construction was finished in 1928. It served as the Temple Emanu-El’s home for the next four decades.

Setbacks and Alarming Developments

Those decades saw alarming developments in Europe, which spilled over into Spokane. One prominent member of the Jewish community, Joe Rubens, remembered seeing Nazi-style “grey shirts” (probably the fascist Silver Shirts, which had a presence in Spokane beginning in 1934) marching down Riverside Avenue in the 1930s, according to an account written by his son, Richard Rubens, and Larry Grossman of Spokane. This sight galvanized the elder Rubens into action and he began doing everything he could do to bring as many Jews out of Germany as possible. As a result, more than 50 Jews arrived in Spokane from Germany.

Before the 1930s, anti-Semitism had been uncommon in Spokane, according to Janton’s 1926 history. He wrote, “Anti-Semitism, inequality or distinction between them and between the other nationalities, is entirely unknown here” (Janton). However, this changed later when Jews were barred from some social clubs and restrictive covenants prevented them from buying homes in some areas. Some of these restrictions were not lifted until the 1960s and 1970s.

In later decades, it was impossible to ignore the presence of the anti-Semitic Aryan Nations compound in nearby Hayden Lake in the 1980s.  In 1992, the FBI foiled a plot by skinheads and white supremacists to firebomb the Spokane synagogue. The plot was never carried out, but tight security became a necessary part of life for Spokane’s Jewish community.

Mid-Century Spokane

Yet Jews remained prominent all through the twentieth century in Spokane’s retail trade. In mid-century, Spokane had four Jewish-owned jewelry stores, 12 clothing stores and two furniture stores, according to Rubens and Grossman. David C. Cowen, a Spokane dentist, served in the Washington State Legislature from 1935 to 1965, with only a two-year hiatus.

The building of the Interstate 90 freeway sparked the most momentous change in the Jewish community in the last 50 years. The Keneseth Israel synagogue was directly in the path of the freeway and was scheduled to be razed. The two Jewish congregations met and announced in 1966 that they would merge and build a new synagogue on the South Hill, near 30th and Perry.

Temple Emanu-El sold its synagogue at 8th and Walnut. It is now the Plymouth Congregational Church, retaining the “Have We Not All One Father” slogan on the front -- but without the Star of David.

The new Temple Beth Shalom was dedicated in 1969. The two congregations were combined, thus ending the “temple kids” vs. “synagogue kids” friction once and for all. The Temple Beth Shalom became a Conservative synagogue, not Reform, although the word “temple,” generally associated with Reform congregations, was deliberately included as a compromise.

Spokane's Jewish Community Today

As of 2008, three other Jewish congregations have sprung up in Spokane: Congregation Beth Haverim and Congregation Ner Tamid, both Reform, and Chabad Center, a traditional congregation that operates out of the rabbi's residence on the South Hill of Spokane.

Temple Beth Shalom remains, by far, the largest congregation, and the only one with its own synagogue. Izakson estimated that the Jewish population has remained relatively steady in Spokane over the decades, although with the growth of the city the percentage of the total population has dropped. Izakson estimated the Jewish population to be around .5 percent (one-half of 1 percent) of the metro population, although exact figures are hard to confirm.

Today, many members of Temple Beth Shalom are too young to remember the old synagogues. Yet even in the modern, concrete Temple Beth Shalom, reminders abound. The beautiful stained-glass windows in the sanctuary came from Temple Emanu-El. An illuminated glass Star of David came from Keneseth Israel.

Meanwhile, a historical marker stands near 3rd and Madison, on the lot of Downtown Lexus of Spokane. The marker reminds pedestrians that this was, more than a century ago, a sacred spot in the state’s Jewish history.

Sources: David Levine, "Spokane's Jewish Community," in N. W. Durham, History of the City of Spokane and Spokane County (Spokane, Chicago, and Philadelphia: J. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1912), 579-581; Molly Cone, Howard Droker and Jacqueline Williams, Family of Strangers: Building a Jewish Community in Washington State (Seattle: Washington State Jewish Historical Society, in association with the University of Washington Press, 2003); Moses N. Janton, History of the Jews in Spokane, Washington, from the Early Days Until the Present Time (Spokane: Star Printing House, 1926) pamphlet in possession of Temple Beth Shalom; Richard Rubens and Larry Grossman, "History of the Jews of Spokane, Washington," 2008, manuscript in possession of Temple Beth Shalom; "Congregation Emanu-El," Spokane Falls Review, October 8, 1890; "The First Jewish Temple," Spokane Review,  January 13, 1892; "New Hebrew Temple," Spokane Review, April 2, 1892; "Impressive Confirmation Services Held at Temple Emanu-El," Spokesman-Review, June 7, 1892; "Two of Trio Pursued by Jewish Brotherhood," Spokesman-Review, February 26, 1909;"Impressive Service Marks Laying of Jewish Temple Cornerstone," Spokesman-Review, July 6, 1920; "Silvershirts Organize Here," Spokesman-Review, August 12, 1936; "Two Jewish Groups Merge to Form Temple Beth Shalom," Spokesman-Review, April 5, 1966; Bill Morlin, "Ex-Aryan Discloses Death Plot," Spokesman-Review, February 16, 1992; Jim Kershner interview with Rabbi Jacob Izakson, Spokane, April 2008.

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