Volunteers Make congregation's history accessible to all

On Friday night, Dec. 12, 1941 – the first Shabbat after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor – Rabbi Henry J. Berkowitz offered words of comfort and inspiration to his congregation.
“There is no question that all of us are entering the hardest period of our lives,” he told members of Portland’s Congregation Beth Israel, which he had served since 1928. “This is the time when you must learn again to pray for courage and faith. …Tonight we pour out our petitions to Him.”

The rabbi’s Pearl Harbor sermon – along with his other sermons and a trove of other writings, memorabilia and even notes about fishing vacations – are part of a wealth of Oregon Jewish history currently being catalogued by more than a dozen volunteers from Beth Israel and the community.

“We’re very fortunate to have all of Rabbi Berkowitz’s papers,” says Pete Asch, archivist at the Oregon Jewish Museum, where the volunteers have been reviewing and archiving materials going back to the congregation’s founding in 1858. The materials, which include everything from board minutes to building blueprints to Sunday School lesson plans, comprise some 200 feet of records, about half of the total collection of congregational records originally stored at Beth Israel’s landmark building in Northwest Portland. “The records are massive,” says Asch. “And this is such an important collection. So much of the city’s history is intertwined with the history of the temple.” He notes that Beth Israel is the oldest Jewish congregation west of the Rockies and north of San Francisco, and its members – and rabbis – have been key players in Oregon, and sometimes national, civic, political and religious life. “The temple records are sort of a ‘Who’s Who’ of the community,” he says.

Asch sees the project, in part, as reclaiming history. “We’re getting Beth Israel’s records in one spot – and organizing them so that anyone can access the information easily,” he says. The project began about a decade ago, when Gerel Blauer began working with the Beth Israel archives. Several years ago, Beth Israel decided to have OJM organize and store historic records (those “inactive” as of 2000). Asch reviewed the 400 feet of materials stored at Beth Israel and selected items for the OJM volunteers. “Many of us had worked on processing records of the National Council of Jewish Women for OJM,” says Carol Chestler, who now is sifting through minutes of Beth Israel’s committee meetings. “When we finished that – after five years – we were ready for another project.”

The volunteers, many of whom are seniors with long histories in the state’s oldest congregation, typically spend two hours a week sorting through and cataloging records. Chestler, a founding member of Havurah Shalom whose son, Stuart, is the current Beth Israel president, observes that the records sometimes include minute details. “They even had notes about who ordered a tuna fish sandwich – and what it cost – during their committee meetings,” she says. For the record, it was about 50 cents during the 1950s. Rose Rustin, a Beth Israel member since 1972, pulls a double shift – working four hours each week. Like the other volunteers, she takes delight in uncovering an up-until-then forgotten piece of history. “One of the most interesting things, I think, is a copy of Julius L. Meier’s speech to the congregation in 1934 – when he was both president of Beth Israel and governor of Oregon,” she says. And it wasn’t just his dual role – interesting as that was – but also his discussion of the congregation’s financial distress in the depths of the Depression.

By 1934, at the congregation’s 75th annual meeting, Meier noted that Beth Israel was struggling to meet its $12,500 annual mortgage payment on the impressive Byzantine-style temple it had completed in 1928. “From the standpoint of membership enrollment and income, we have been put back 20 years,” he said. “All salaries have been brought down to the lowest possible point … and by closing this building entirely except for Sunday mornings, we have dispensed with the services of the additional janitor.” Other records being processed include some of the founding documents of the congregation, membership forms from recent decades (with financial and other sensitive information edited out), Hebrew school and sisterhood records, marriage and conversion records, various histories of the congregation and photos.

When the processing is complete – at a date not yet set – Asch says that in addition to being available at OJM some of the files will be uploaded to the Portland State University Archives website, where there will be a public search tool. Currently, the “Congregation Beth Israel Collection: 1858-2000” includes an outline of what is or will be in the files. The link is: archives.pdx.edu/archon/?p=collections/findingaid&id=138&q.

Asch says OJM has used the Beth Israel project as a template for future projects with other congregations. The museum is in discussions with several congregations about curating and preserving their records as part of its mission to document the community’s history.

“What we tell people is that this process – of curating, cataloging and preserving their records – actually gives them more access to their history,” he says. “It’s preserving your history – and making it accessible – for all the generations to come.”

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