Kesser Israel is the stronghold for Torah Judaism, for Yiddishkeit, in the Pacific Northwest, and for Oregon in particular. Located in the progressive city of Portland, it is a laidback congregation that is attracting new young families and individuals. It’s origins date back to the California Gold Rush, which, from 1848-1856, brought approximately 300,000 people to California. About half of those arriving came by sea from abroad and the other half came over land. The United States had an estimated Jewish population of 15,000 in 1840; by 1848 it had grown to 50,000. Included in the 300,000 gold-diggers heading west were approximately 4,000 Jews hoping to strike it rich. Rather than miners and diggers, most of the Jewish immigrants, in large part from Prussia and German speaking countries, were merchants. They established businesses offering clothing, supplies, and equipment to the miners, the mining companies, and local communities. These frontier Jews subsequently moved to other states, with Oregon holding prominence, servicing farmers and towns, bringing commerce and providing leadership. They also served in various government and political roles – there were Jewish mayors in the Oregon cities of Astoria, Pendleton, Troutdale, and Burns.
The Oregon Trail was the route used by over 400,000 pioneers in the Great Migration westward. Oregon had developed a reputation as “the promised land.” The first Jewish settlers in Portland were recorded in 1849, although they did not seem to stay for long. A census in 1850 shows a general population in Portland of 821 with only one Jewish resident. The 1860 census records 84 Jews over the age of 16, comprised of 61 men and 23 women. Louis Blumauer, born in 1855, was the first Jewish child born in Oregon. As is typical in American Jewish history, a Jewish cemetery became the first Jewish organization – Mt. Sinai Cemetery being established in Portland in 1856.
In 1857, Aaron Meier established a department store in Portland. He then returned to his native Germany to get married and came back to Portland ten years later. By 1914, Meier and Frank was the fourth largest department store in the United States. Son Julius Meyer was a key figure in promoting the Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition in 1905, and is considered the “father” of the Columbia River Highway, the oldest scenic highway in America. Julius served as Governor of Oregon from 1931-1935. He founded the Oregon State Police and established the Oregon Liquor Commission once prohibition was abolished. In 1966, the M&F store and its branches were acquired by the May Company and in 2006, Macy’s bought the business, and the name Meier and Frank was discontinued.
Another early pioneer of note was Bernard Goldsmith. Originally from Bavaria, in the 1850s he served as a lieutenant in the cavalry in the Indian Wars in California and Oregon. After moving from California to Portland, he established a jewelry store, which he expanded to a wholesale store and, eventually, his financial empire included cattle ranches, shipping and railroad construction. He built the Willamette Falls locks in Oregon City. He was mayor of Portland from 1869-1871 to be succeeded by Philip Wasserman, Portland’s second Jewish mayor.
Joseph Simon, a Portland attorney, was another Jewish pioneer who achieved renown in Oregon’s political elite. After serving as state GOP chairman, he was elected to the Senate from 1880-1891 and again in 1895-1898. He was a U.S. Senator from 1898-1903. In 1909, he became Portland’s third Jewish mayor.
The Jewish population was further increased in 1898 when the Packouz family moved from their shtetl in Latvia to Portland; other residents of the Osava shtetl soon followed. The Packouz brothers were founding members of Kesser Israel.
The next influx to Oregon was in the 1880s and consisted of Jews escaping the pogroms and persecution of the Russian Empire. In 1901, the Industrial Removal Office was established to resolve the overcrowding in the Jewish sections of New York and directed the new immigrants to various cities. An estimated 430-850 of them were sent to join the Portland Jewish community. Portland’s thriving Jewish community welcomed the new immigrants and new synagogues were established. Congregation Shaarie Torah was the first, founded in 1901; Congregation Kesser Israel and Linath Hatzedek were established around 1915. A Sephardic shul, Ahavath Achim was founded a year later. Shaarie Torah and Linath Hatzedek became Conservative, leaving Kesser Israel as the sole Orthodox Ashkenazi shul. The Jewish population in all of Oregon in 1918 was approximately 9,000.
Oregon Jews served in the military during World War II including Fred Rosenbaum who was born in Austria and sent on a Kindertransport to England; he later became a brigadier general in the Oregon National Guard. During World War II, the M&F Department Store raised money via war bonds to support the Allied forces. $32 million worth of bonds were sold, the largest sale of war bonds on record.
After World War II, several families of Holocaust survivors moved to Portland and strengthened Kesser Israel whose records from the time reflect about 60 members. Included in the post-Shoah transplants was Isaac Frankel. A child survivor of the Holocaust and a tank commander in the Sinai in 1967, he arrived at Kesser Israel in the 1980s.
Russian Jews continued moving to Oregon in the final decades of the Soviet Union. During the 1970s, 60 families, comprised of 148 souls, settled in Portland giving it the highest number of Russian Jewish resettlement per capita in the country although they were not necessarily affiliated with Kesser Israel. The more recent influx of Jews to Portland can be attributed to the growth of high tech companies in the area.
Congregation Kesser Israel is the longest established Orthodox synagogue in Oregon. The shul also credits itself with being the longest continuously operating shul between San Francisco and Seattle. For most of its century old history, Kesser Israel’s home was a three-story Carpenter Gothic building originally built for the Immanuel Baptist Church. The Meade Street Shul, as it was commonly known, was in the heart of Portland’s old immigrant district. The South Portland immigrant community was included in a district that was dissipated when an urban renewal project razed 54 blocks. While Kesser Israel was spared, the kosher bakery, deli, and other Jewish stores were not. Although many Kesser Israel members had begun relocating to more modern housing, the need for a new facility became pressing.
In 2007, Kesser Israel moved to its current facility, formerly a small brewpub. Many of the sacred items also made the move. A stained glass window from the Meade Street Ark was incorporated into the Aron Kodesh in the new sanctuary; the Ner Tamid also hangs in the new sanctuary. A hand-painted Ten Commandments, flanked by two lions, sat atop the Aron in the Meade Street shul and now enhances the new sanctuary as well.
Jewish life today in Portland is geographically centered around the Mittleman Jewish Community Center which is in close walking distance to the new Kesser Israel location. The Jewish community is enhanced with a senior living and healthcare center, a Jewish day school through eighth grade – there are more than 100 students – and a kollel that was started in 2006 with the assistance of Torah U’Mesorah.
The membership of Kesser Israel consisted of about 65 families in 2005 when Rabbi Brodkin and his wife joined them from Houston, Texas. The membership has grown to 125 families under Rabbi Brodkin’s leadership. The Jewish Federation estimates the Jewish population of Portland to be about 40,000 with only 8,000 having any Jewish affiliations. The future is optimistic and Kesser Israel has a campaign to raise $1,500,000 to expand their current building. The shul offers a daily minyan for Shacharis and Mincha/Maariv and about 20-25 men join. However, on Shabbos attendance grows to about 125. Frequently the shul’s capacity is maxed out for Yomim Tovim. There are shiurim in many areas, including Daf Yomi and Mishna Brurah. It’s members are greatly involved in the kollel, Mayaan Torah Day School, NCSY, the Portland Eruv, the Chevra Kadisha, the mikvah, Jewish Scouts, the Jewish Federation, etc.
Members represent the spectrum from Yeshivish to Modern Orthodox and from traditional to secular. As Rabbi Brodkin says, “One of the dynamics is to be a big tent and we want all of them to feel good in being a participant.”
Oregon’s Jewish Who’s Who boasts the founders of the Portland Trailblazers, the abstract artist Mark Rothko (Markus Yakevlevich Rothkowitz), Mel Blanc (the voice of Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker and hundreds of other cartoon characters) and my all-time favorite Oregonian: Rabbi Kalman Packouz who is famously known as the “Torah Fax Rabbi.” Now also available by email, the Shabbat Shalom Weekly is the most popular electronic weekly in the Jewish world and has over 300,000 subscribers.
I knew Rabbi Packouz was from Portland but I didn’t know his family history until I paid a shiva call after his mother’s petira. Kalman was in the first Aish HaTorah class, along with six other classmates including my husband, with Reb Noach zt”l. When I asked Kalman if his mother was born in Portland, he confirmed that she was, and gave me the family history including his father’s grandparents being early settlers of Portland Jewry. Four generations of Portland Jews! Thus the origins for a Shul With A Story. From the days of the California Gold Rush to Kesser Israel, the Jews of Portland are still creating their own treasures.