Jewish Community Center: How It all began

In 1910 three men filed articles of incorporation for “The B’nai B’rith Building Association.” They had a grand vision. The aim was a campaign to establish “a building which is to be made a centre of Jewish communal activities” – with seed money to come from selling 2,500 bonds at $10 each.

They wanted the new center to support “every organized effort for the good of the people” – from “fostering among our people brotherly sentiments, mutual sympathy, kindliness and sense of responsibility” to “every purpose which tends towards cordial and friendly relationship with all the peoples of our city.” Today that vision, commitment and devotion to community continues to be the hallmark of what is now the Mittleman Jewish Community Center – which is still at the heart of Portland’s Jewish community.

But back to the beginnings: Within a few months, the organizers – Rabbi Jonah B. Wise of Congregation Beth Israel and prominent Portland attorneys David Solis Cohen and Isaac Swett – called a meeting of some 60 initial investors, elected Swett as the first president and began searching for a site. There were some false starts. Immediately after the group’s organization, it purchased property on Southwest 13th Avenue and Jefferson Street, which it sold three years later for a $10,000 profit, according to historian William Toll. It was only after considering several other sites that the group purchased a lot on Southwest 13th Avenue and Mill Street for $14,000.

Architect Jacob Dauthoff completed the plans in spring of 1914, and the new building was ready by October. The total cost was about $50,000. The new building boasted “one of the finest gymnasiums in the West, furnished complete,” according to a story in The Oregonian. It also had a running track, a 20-by-60-foot swimming pool with springboards “and other paraphernalia,” locker rooms and a billiard and smoking room in addition to various meeting rooms, a library and offices. Membership dues were $12 per year for those 18 and older.

The center quickly became the go-to spot for everything from club meetings to dances to lectures – and, of course, athletic contests between B’nai B’rith and other Portland teams. “The activities located in the building represented an effort by the board of directors to provide a center for all strata in the Jewish community,” Toll notes in his book, The Making of an Ethnic Middle Class: Portland Jewry Over Four Generations. “But the activities they themselves sponsored catered to an upwardly mobile middle class.”

Toll points out that Neighborhood House, the settlement house established in 1905 by the National Council of Jewish Women in the immigrant neighborhood of Old South Portland, featured programs for “rehabilitation” and integration – including medical and dental clinics, Americanization classes and instruction in cooking and sewing. “When families and young people joined the community center, they were no longer in need of comprehensive guidance,” Toll says. “Instead, they were expected to express interests, which the center would try to meet.”

And the center did. “It was the home of many thousands of youngsters who gained a wonderful background of comradeship and the ability to relate to worthwhile endeavors, making better men and women,” notes an anonymous manuscript detailing the history of the center in the Oregon Jewish Museum’s archives. Some landmarks: The name was changed to the B’nai B’rith Center in 1923 and to the Jewish Community Center in 1938. The center’s camping program was launched in 1921, and by 1928 Julius L. Meier of the Meier & Frank merchant family purchased and donated a 13-acre tract of land on Devils Lake near the Oregon Coast as a permanent home for the summer camp. In1924 Millicent “Mickey” Hirschberg joined the center staff, developing an award-winning swimming and water-therapy program. Both she and Harry “Polly” Policar, who became the center’s athletic director in 1933, served the center for more than 40 years and were among the first inductees in the Oregon Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

But the center was also involved in community activities. It developed programs for soldiers during both World Wars I and II, and in 1921 joined the Community Chest, a forerunner of the United Way. In the 1920s it opened the gym to a group of “deaf and dumb boys” for basketball practice after 9:00 pm on Ladies’ Night. And a group of young Jewish dental students, the Alpha and Omega Society, met there twice monthly. Following the Vanport Flood of 1948, when the Columbia River broke through a railroad dike and displaced thousands of veterans and former war workers in North Portland, the center opened it doors to more than 200 evacuees, housing the families for 10 days. Harry Mittleman, then president of the JCC, reported that more than 200 volunteers “gave unsparingly” in an around-the- clock schedule to make sure that evacuees’ needs were met. More than 6,000 meals were prepared, and activities were organized for more than 80 children under the age of 12. “The Jewish Community Center has reached its maturity and now holds its place as one of the leaders of the entire Portland community,” Mittleman added in a later article. A preschool was begun in 1947 and, under the direction of the late Helen Gordon, would become a model for integrating exceptional-needs children. Her husband, William “Bill” Gordon, served as the center’s program director and later assistant director from the 1950s to the late 1970s, during which time he expanded theater productions and other cultural events. As the center continued to grow and expand its services, it became clear a new facility and possibly a new location were needed. Celia Lesman, the center’s first woman board president, who served from 1954 to 1956, had flagged the need in her 1955 annual report. “It has been our experience that we have a selling job to do,” she noted. “We are optimistic!”

Relocation became imperative when a Portland State University (then Portland State College) expansion claimed the original site at 1636 SW 13th Ave. As before, community leaders came together to launch a fund-raising campaign – but this time the cost of the building was close to $2 million. Portland jeweler Julius Zell headed up a 13-member campaign cabinet, and businessman Harold Schnitzer chaired the building committee.

And as at the beginning, the new center was envisioned to be a “second home” for the entire Jewish community and its friends “for generations to come.” “It is intended,” a 1968 story in the Jewish Review reported, “to be the focal point in Jewish communal activities to ‘enrich the life of everyone’ in the community.”

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