For more than 100 years, Sephardic Jews have been an important part of the Portland Jewish community. Next year, beginning in June, they will celebrate their rich history and hopes for the future with “A Hundred Years of Sephardic Life in Portland.” This ambitious project will feature a gala kickoff dinner and a four-month historical exhibit, documentary DVD and catalog.
“We’ve been working on this for about a year already,” says Richard Matza, the committee chairman and a past president of Congregation Ahavath Achim, Portland’s original Sephardic synagogue. “It’s not just about the synagogue – it’s about the life, the people, the events that took place over the last 100 years.”
Some of that history already has been documented, but Matza and Rochelle “Rocky” Menashe Stilwell, who is working on the exhibit, documentary and catalog, say they want to record and present the rich variety of Sephardic life along with the experiences of old and young, newcomers and established families.
“We’re curious about how Sephardic life is intertwined with people’s lives in Portland,” says Stilwell, whose grandparents were among the early Sephardic families in Portland and were founding members of Ahavath Achim. “I’ve always felt connected to my Sephardic roots, and this is a journey for me to learn more.”
Both Matza and Stilwell welcome volunteers as well as donors to help with the costs of the project. The exhibit, catalog and documentary will be developed in cooperation with the Oregon Jewish Museum, which has scheduled the exhibit opening for June 2014, and with the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies at Portland State University.
“We are thrilled to be cooperating with Ahavath Achim and the Sephardic community on this project,” says Shoshanna Lansberg, OJM’s exhibits’ curator. “The Sephardic community has such a rich history – much of it something that hasn’t been examined – and we’re looking forward to being able to help document and share that story.” Sephardim were the first Jews to settle in America, arriving in what became New York in 1654. However, Oregon’s Sephardic community sprang from a later emigration – tracing its origins to Jews who left countries of the old Ottoman Empire around the turn of the last century.
According to Jonathan Singer, who wrote a history of the local Sephardic community for his college thesis in 2003, a group of Sephardic bachelors who had settled in Seattle moved down to Portland about 1909. Most of these men, he noted, were from the Greek Isle of Rhodes and the Turkish cities of Marmora, Tekirdag and Constantinople (now Istanbul). Many of those early Sephardim – with last names like Hasson, Menashe, Policar, Babani and Benveniste – worked in grocery, produce and shoe-shining trades.
By 1910 a dozen men attended the first Sephardic High Holy Day services at the Newsboys Club in Old South Portland, and by 1912 – with a population of 80 – Portland’s Sephardic community was the second largest on the West Coast. According to Singer, “the fledgling community even had its own café and kosher restaurant,” both of which served as gathering places for community members.
After about five years of informal organization, Congregation Ahavath Achim – meaning “brotherly love” – was officially organized and met at the B’nai B’rith Building, also known as the Jewish Community Center, on Southwest 13th Avenue. By 1921 the congregation purchased land for its own building in Old South Portland.
“With $6,000 in the bank on Oct. 13, 1929 (just over two weeks before Black Tuesday [the Stock Market Crash]), ground was broken on the congregation’s first home of its own,” Singer noted.
Less than a year later, on Aug. 31, 1930, dedication services were held in the brick Mission-style building with a roof of graceful Mediterranean-style curved red ceramic tiles. Community leaders including philanthropist Ben Selling and Rabbis J.B. Fain of Shaarie Torah, Meyer Rubin of Neveh Zedek, and Jonah B. Wise and Henry J. Berkowitz of Beth Israel participated in the event. Another notable attendee was Julius L. Meier, who later that year would be elected Oregon governor.
The architectural firm of Bennes & Herzog, which consulted on the 1928 Temple Beth Israel – listed on the National Register of Historic Places – drew the plans for Ahavath Achim.
;Whereas Beth Israel cost $500,000, The Oregonian noted, Ahavath Achim had budgeted a modest $25,000 for construction costs. In the 1960s when the City of Portland launched an urban renewal clearance project in Old South Portland, Ahavath Achim was forced to relocate. Congregants planned to move the building to a new site on Southwest Barbur Boulevard, but the building was damaged during the move and was subsequently condemned.
Fortunately, it had been insured by Lloyd’s of London; a combination of insurance, city urban renewal payments and additional donations enabled the congregation to build a new home on Barbur Boulevard. The current building at 3225 SW Barbur Blvd. was completed and dedicated in 1966. According to Matza, the synagogue has been characterized by lay leadership throughout most of its history. At the same time, there have been several notable leaders over the past century. For more than 50 years, beginning in 1933, Cantor (Hazzan) Jack Maimon of the Sephardic Bikur Cholim synagogue in Seattle came down to conduct High Holy Day and Purim services.
In 1966 Rabbi Michel Albagli, a former head of the rabbinical court on Rhodes, became Ahavath Achim’s first official rabbi. However, he moved to emeritus status by the end of 1967 because of ill health and passed away in 1988. In 1986 and 1987 Sam Nechemia began serving as hazzan at the congregation and continued in that role at various times during subsequent decades. At the end of 2003 Rabbi Shlomo Truzman joined the congregation, where he served for three years before establishing Congregation Beit Yosef in Southwest Portland.
And since 2011 Rabbi Michael Kaplan (see accompanying story) has been Ahavath Achim’s spiritual leader. “Rabbi and Mira Kaplan are very dynamic,” Matza says. “They’ve instituted a lot of programming and have elevated the level of excitement for us.” Matza, who grew up at Ahavath Achim and has served in many leadership roles there, notes that the congregation’s demise has been predicted for years. And yet he remains as optimistic about its future as he is devoted to maintaining its legacy.
“We are not, and never have been, a large shul,” he says. “We’ve always had between 80 to 100 member families.” That was the number in the 1930 dedication program and at 25th and 80th anniversary celebrations. But unlike the early years, when founding families came from just a few communities, today Ahavath Achim has members from Israel, Morocco, Yemen, Syria – and more than a third of them have Ashkenazi backgrounds. “A lot of the Sephardic Jews come because they are interested in the cultural and social aspects of the community,” says Matza. He adds that the Ashkenazim come because they enjoy the style of service, the melodies, the warmth of the congregation and the fact that, as a small community, there are so many opportunities to participate.
“Everyone is welcome under our tent,” he says. “We don’t judge anybody.” “This is the essence of my being,” Matza says of his Sephardic heritage. “It is the essence of who and what I identify with.” Matza relates that he grew up in two homes – that of his parents, Aaron and Julia Benveniste Matza, and of his aunt and uncle, Isaac and Rachel Benveniste Cordova, whose families were mainstays of Ahavath Achim. Today, his wife, Judi, their two adult daughters and five grandchildren identify strongly with Sephardic culture.
“My uncle did a good job of instilling in us who we were and where we came from,” Matza says. “Not just being Sephardic, but being Jewish. The beauty of being a Jew is that we know where we came from. I feel this linkage – I feel the richness of the culture, and I want it to be there forever.”
For more information about the Sephardic History Project, contact Richard Matza, 503- 318-3732 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to the Ahavath Achim website, ahavathachim.com, and click on the Sephardic History Project link on the home page. Coming soon Sephardic100pdx.com.
Sura Rubenstein is a Portland freelance writer.