A new era in Jewish life began on the 5th of Iyar in the Hebrew year 5708 – May 14, 1948. On that day, for the first time in nearly 2,000 years, there was an independent Jewish nation in the birthplace of Judaism, and Oregon Jews joined others around the world in celebration.
“I broke into tears of joy,” the late Augusta Kirshner Reinhardt told The Oregon Journal a quarter-century later. “We stayed up all night, two nights, really, waiting for the decision from the United Nations.”
The announcement of the new nation’s birth arrived early in the morning. “It was,” Reinhardt said, “as if there was a light from heaven.”
The creation of the new State of Israel came after decades of struggle, both within and outside the Jewish community – a struggle in which Oregon’s Jews had their own part to play.
That story has one of its beginnings in July 1899, when the dynamic young rabbi Stephen S. Wise stopped in Portland as part of a West Coast speaking tour on behalf of the fledgling Zionist movement. He spoke to a community meeting and met with Solomon Hirsch, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, to discuss “the troublous Eastern question of which Zionism is a part.” Before he left town, he was offered the post of rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, the city’s most prominent congrega- tion, to commence the following year.
Wise already was an ardent Zionist who had helped found the Federation of American Zionists in 1897 in New York City. He also attended the Second Zionist Conference in 1898 in Basel, Switzerland, where he became close friends with Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, who named him American secretary of the World Zionist Movement. When he arrived at Beth Israel, Wise demanded to have “freedom of the pulpit” – freedom to speak his mind on issues of importance – and frequently spoke on the critical need to establish a Jewish homeland. He joined with other prominent Jews in the city in 1901 to launch the Portland Zionist Society, which hosted lectures and conferences, among other actions.
“Zionism is a dream, but the dream may come true,” Wise told the annual meeting of the Portland Zionist Society in February 1903. He and other members of the society spoke throughout the city, and even took their message to local churches. While they were successful and secure in Oregon, they worried about the fate of Jews in Russia and Europe. The notorious Kishinev pogrom, in April 1903, was one of many events that fueled their dedication.
Over a three-day period, beginning on the Russian Easter, Christian mobs attacked Jews in the Bessarabian (now Moldovan) capital, killing at least 47 people, severely wounding another 92, and destroying more than 700 homes and businesses. It was sparked by a local newspaper’s suggestion that Jews had killed two children to use their blood for Passover matzah. The New York Times wrote: “The anti-Jewish riots in Kishinev, Bessarabia, are worse than the censor will permit us to publish. … The mob was led by priests, and the general cry, ‘Kill the Jews,’ was taken up all over the city.”
In Portland, the B’nai B’rith Lodge – supported by Wise and other community leaders – collected signatures on petitions to be sent to Russian Czar Nicholas II, pleading with him to lead “a new movement that shall commit the whole world in opposi- tion to religious persecution.” More petitions, meetings and other actions – and groups – were organized throughout the following decades: Hadassah, Junior Hadassah, Keren Hayesod (The Jewish National Fund), the Kadimah Society for high school students and later an Israel Bonds committee, a local Zionist newspaper and many others. By the end of World War I, Portland Zionists were signing petitions asking for a Jewish homeland. One gathering, in 1917 at the B’nai B’rith Center, drew nearly 500 people supporting “home rule for the Jewish people.”
In 1945 Portland Zionists joined others to help resettle Holocaust survivors and refugees in Palestine. They pledged to collect $25,000 to aid 100 families in a 250-acre area to be called “Nachlath Portland,” meaning “the share of Portland,” and eventually had nearly 700 “subscribers.” They eventually expanded their “share” to aid additional families as well.
But support for a Jewish state was not universal, even among Jews. The American Council for Judaism, an anti-Zionist or- ganization founded nationally in 1942, had an Oregon chapter that included prominent community members – although the community itself remained strongly Zionist.
Rabbi Julius Nodel, himself a strong Zionist who later followed Wise as spiritu- al leader of Congregation Beth Israel, noted that Zionism had long been a source of contro- versy within the Reform Movement. “Only four years before [Wise’s] coming to Portland the majority of the Central Conference of American Rabbis had disapproved of any attempts for the establishment of a Jewish state,’” Nodel noted in his centennial history of Beth Israel, The Ties Between: 1858-1958. The CCAR, the organization of Reform rabbis, was established in 1889.
Deborah B. Goldberg, now Deborah Menashe, wrote about the history of Zionism in Portland in her 1982 Reed College bachelor’s thesis, Jewish Spirit on the Oregon Frontier: Zionism in Portland, Oregon 1901-1941. She said the Reform movement “attacked any Zionist affirmation as a form of dual loyalty, and as a barrier to Jews’ adaptation to truly democratic life.”
At the same time, she observed that local Zionists were directed by a few strong and influential community leaders, including many from Congregation Beth Israel. “Although Stephen Wise resided in Portland for only six years, his Zionist influence in the city remained his legacy long after he returned to New York,” she said. Hadassah, which Goldberg describes as “the most consistent- ly influential Zionist organization in Portland,” opened a local chapter in the 1920s, headed by Paula Lauterstein. Its activities were concentrated on raising money to support Hadassah’s hospitals and medical clinics in what then was Palestine. Reinhardt, who joined Hadassah in 1943, remembers it as “the primary affiliation for many.” “We were completely involved in Israel,” she said. “We knew it would determine the survival of the Jewish people.”
Steven Lowenstein, writing in The Jews of Oregon: 1850-1950, notes that “Portland was unusual in the broad and vital support Zionism received from the Jewish community.” He credits the involvement of Wise, David Solis-Cohen and other early Zionist leaders. But he also believes there was something more. “Zionism appealed to both the frontier heritage and pioneer spirit of Oregonians, their closeness to the settling of a new land and their tradition of philanthropy,” he wrote. “The spirit of Zionism fit well into Oregon traditions.”
Sura Rubenstein is a Portland freelance writer.