What better day than the first day of Passover to recount the history of Spokane’s Jewish community? And what better day to remind everyone of this surprising fact: In 1892, the first Jewish synagogue in the state opened in Spokane.
First by only four days. But still, the first.
Temple Emanu-El, at the corner of Third Avenue and Madison Street, was dedicated on Sept. 14, 1892. Seattle’s much larger gothic-style Ohaveth Sholum synagogue was constructed around the same time but wasn’t dedicated until Sept. 18, 1892.
The booming city of Spokane was justifiably proud of Temple Emanu-El, which stood tall over muddy Third Avenue, topped by an impressive onion-style dome. It was a frame building with a stone foundation, 40 feet by 70 feet, and cost about $3,500 (raised through donations).
“It will surprise many people to learn that the temple, soon to be erected by the congregation Emmanuel (sic) of this city will be the first Jewish house of worship in the states of Washington and Idaho,” said a Spokane Review editorial on Jan. 13, 1892. “This fact is creditable alike to the city and to the Jewish element of the community.”
In fact, Spokane’s Jewish community had been a key part of Spokane’s development since before the little village of Spokane Falls even existed.
The first known Jewish resident to arrive was Simon Berg, a German immigrant who built a general merchandise store in 1879, when Spokane was little more than a scattering of wooden storefronts. Berg later said that he knew he couldn’t have been the first Jewish trader to visit the area; Indians told him that earlier traders had been “egg-eaters,” which Berg interpreted to mean, Jewish. Many Jewish traders avoided meat when away from home because of kosher dietary restrictions and survived on hard-boiled eggs.
Berg built his store at the corner of Howard and Main and was soon joined by many other Jewish merchants. At least a dozen Jewish merchants and entrepreneurs showed up by 1885. That year, the first Jewish divine services were held in the home of one of those merchants, S. Auerbach, who served as the fill-in cantor and rabbi. Services were held in various private homes for the next five years.
By the time of the Great Fire of 1889, at least another 15 Jewish merchants had arrived, according to an account written by Spokane’s Rabbi David Levine (published in N.W. Durham’s “History of the City of Spokane” in 1912). Most of these were German or Austrian Jews who had been in the U.S. for 30 or 40 years. Many arrived from either Seattle, California or the East Coast, and were relatively well-to-do.
Their families arrived right along with them. The first recorded Jewish birth was in 1888.The first Jewish death was in 1886, a 9-year-old who died of scarlet fever. The child was buried in the city’s general cemetery and later re-buried when a Jewish cemetery was established.
By 1890, private residences were insufficient for holding services. So the Jewish community gathered at Concordia Hall in 1890 to organize as an official congregation of 52 members. They called themselves Congregation Emanu-El, modeled in part after Temple Emanu-El in New York City. Like the state’s other early congregations, it was a Reform congregation, as opposed to the more traditional Orthodox synagogues. Some board members in the early years even used the word “church” when speaking of the temple, according to “Family of Strangers: Building a Jewish Community in Washington State,” by Molly Cone, Howard Droker and Jacqueline Williams.
Seattle’s Ohaveth Sholum beat them to the punch by a year when it came to forming a congregation, but Congregation Emanu-El was quicker on the construction. A story in the Spokane Review on April 2, 1892, explained that the congregation had officially accepted architect Herman Preusse’s plans for a new temple. Meanwhile, the congregation was holding services in Spokane’s Unitarian Church, including, in June, the first “Jewish confirmation services” in the state. The paper wrote that the ceremony compared favorably to “such ceremonies in large eastern cities,” and the church was “filled to its utmost capacity.”
The new temple was dedicated a few months later, but its first rabbi, Rabbi Emanuel Schreiber, left soon afterward and no rabbi came to replace him until 1895. Services, apparently, were still held, but without a rabbi there was little or no religious instruction.
“A beautiful temple stands silent,” bemoaned a Spokane letter writer in the periodical “The American Israelite” in 1894.
By 1895, a new rabbi had been hired, religious instruction resumed and the mortgage on the temple was paid off. This reflected the growing prominence and prosperity of the Jewish community in Spokane, which was estimated at about 1.5 percent of the city’s population.
According to “The History of the Jews of Spokane, Wash.,” a pamphlet written in 1926 by a member of the community, Moses N. Janton, the list of accomplishments during this period was long: Albert Heller erected the first brick building on Howard Street; Harry Rosenhaupt was elected to the state legislature in 1899 and was reelected several times; Nathan Toklas erected The Great Eastern Block, now known as the Peyton Building.
One prominent member of the Jewish community, Simon Oppenheimer, was among the first Spokane businessmen to go to Holland to seek business capital. He came back with $300,000 in Dutch capital and used it to build a sawmill and a flour mill. He later had a hand in starting two banks. He also started an important trend in Spokane’s economic history. By the middle of the 1890s, much of Spokane was financed by Dutch capital, and Oppenheimer was referred to as “The Biggest Man in Spokane.”
The second wave
Around 1900, a new influx of Jewish immigrants began arriving in Spokane. These new arrivals were different from the well-off, well-assimilated German Jews. They tended to speak Yiddish and were Orthodox Jews, not Reform Jews.
“This was very typical of the American Jewish story, repeated hundreds of times in cities all over America,” said Rabbi Jacob Izakson of Spokane’s major synagogue today, Temple Beth Shalom. “The German Jews came first and were well-established by the time the Eastern European Jews came over.”
So in 1901, Spokane’s Orthodox Jews gathered and launched Congregation Keneseth Israel. They worshiped at the Odd Fellows Hall until 1909, when they finished their own synagogue, the Keneseth Israel Synagogue at Fourth Avenue and Adams Street. This Orthodox synagogue and the Reform synagogue just a few blocks away formed the two bookends for Spokane’s growing Jewish community.
Keneseth Israel, which had 125 members by 1926, arranged for kosher meat to be prepared for Jews who obeyed the dietary laws. It also acquired a Jewish cemetery, which they named Mt. Nebo, on Government Way (next to Greenwood Memorial Park). It remains Spokane’s sacred Jewish burial ground.
In those early decades, friction existed between what one woman described in “A Family of Strangers” as the “temple kids and the synagogue kids.”
“The synagogue people didn’t consider us as knowledgeable Jews and they let us know it,” the book quoted one woman as saying, who grew up in Temple Emanu-El.
However, the community came together in many ways, especially in the B’nai B’rith, a Jewish social, charitable and service organization. By 1926, the Jewish community, which was estimated at about 400 people, was known for being especially generous to the city’s charities. When they donated a large sum of money to the city’s Community Chest, the organizers asked them if they wanted to direct the money toward a Jewish institution. They replied, according to Janton, “We will only give, but not take.”
Janton also called his community “remarkably refined, just and upright” and that practically none has “a criminal record of any kind.” Apparently, the Jewish community policed themselves, as evidenced by a 1909 Spokesman-Review story which said that two “alleged Jewish parasites” accused of “living off the earnings of Mollie Miller, a fallen woman,” had been arrested “at the insistence of the Jewish Brotherhood of Spokane, which proposes not only to drive out of the city, but also to punish, all vicious characters of the Hebrew race.”
In 1920, the old wooden Temple Emanu-El was showing its age. The congregation found a lot at Eighth Avenue and Walnut Street and began building a new, much larger brick temple with a stunning Roman classical design. The front of the building featured six Corinthian columns and an inscription in stone: “Have We Not All One Father.”
Construction was finished in 1928. It served as the Temple Emanu-El’s home for the next four decades.
Hatred comes home
Those decades saw alarming developments in Europe, which sometimes even spilled over into Spokane. One prominent member of the Jewish community, Joe Rubens, remembered seeing Nazi-style “grey shirts” (probably the fascist Silver Shirts, which had a presence in Spokane beginning in 1934) marching down Riverside Avenue in the 1930s, according to an account written by his son, Richard Rubens, and Larry Grossman of Spokane. This sight galvanized the elder Rubens into action and he began doing everything he could do to bring as many Jews out of Germany as possible. As a result, more than 50 Jews arrived in Spokane from Germany.
Before the 1930s, anti-Semitism had been uncommon in Spokane, according to Janton’s 1926 history. He wrote, “Anti-Semitism, inequality or distinction between them and between the other nationalities, is entirely unknown here.” However, this changed later when Jews were barred from some social clubs and restrictive covenants prevented them from buying homes in some areas. Some of these restrictions were not lifted until the 1960s and 1970s.
In later decades, it was impossible to ignore the presence of the anti-Semitic Aryan Nations compound in nearby Hayden Lake in the 1980s. In 1992, the FBI foiled a plot by skinheads and white supremacists to firebomb the Spokane synagogue. The plot was never carried out, but tight security became a necessary part of life for Spokane’s Jewish community.
Two congregations become one
Yet Jews remained prominent all through the 20th century in Spokane’s retail trade. In mid-century, Spokane had four Jewish-owned jewelry stores, 12 clothing stores and two furniture stores, according to Rubens and Grossman. David C. Cowen, a Spokane dentist, served in the Washington State Legislature from 1935 to 1965, with only a two-year hiatus.
The most momentous change in the Jewish community in the last 50 years was sparked by, of all things, the building of the Interstate 90 freeway. The Keneseth Israel synagogue was directly in the path of the freeway and was scheduled to be razed. The two Jewish congregations met and announced in 1966 that they would merge and build a new synagogue on the South Hill, near 30th and Perry.
Temple Emanu-El sold its synagogue at Eighth and Walnut. It is now the Plymouth Congregational Church, retaining the “Have We Not All One Father” slogan on the front – without the Star of David.
The new Temple Beth Shalom was dedicated in 1969. The two congregations were combined, thus ending the “temple kids” vs. “synagogue kids” friction once and for all. The Temple Beth Shalom became a Conservative synagogue, not Reform, although the word “temple,” generally associated with Reform congregations, was deliberately included as a compromise.
Today, three other Jewish congregations have sprung up in Spokane: Congregation Beth Haverim and Congregation Ner Tamid, both Reform, and Chabad Center, a Hasidic congregation.
Temple Beth Shalom remains, by far, the largest, and the only one with its own synagogue. Izakson estimated that the Jewish population has remained relatively steady in Spokane over the decades, although with the growth of the city the percentage of the total population has dropped. Izakson estimated the Jewish population to be around one-half of one percent of the metro population, although exact figures are hard to confirm.
Today, many members of Temple Beth Shalom are too young to remember the old synagogues. Yet even in the modern, concrete Temple Beth Shalom, reminders abound. The beautiful stained-glass windows in the sanctuary came from Temple Emanu-El. An illuminated glass Star of David came from Keneseth Israel.
Meanwhile, a historical marker stands near Third and Madison, on the lot of Downtown Lexus of Spokane. The marker reminds pedestrians that this was, more than a century ago, a sacred spot in the state’s Jewish history.