Portland State University. Department of History
David A. Johnson
Term of Graduation
Date of Publication
Master of Arts (M.A.) in History
Jews -- Oregon -- Portland -- History
1 online resource (xiii, 164 pages)
No other ethnic group enjoyed the level of success, defined in terms of economic status and social acceptance, attained by Portland Jews in the second half of the nineteenth century. Hailing predominantly from the German states of northern and central Europe, the Jewish pioneers transplanted middle class values and mercantile skills in their new home. From a small unstable population of single men in the 1850s, Portland Jewry grew into an affluent class conscious family oriented community by the mid-1880s.
The center of Portland's Jewish life during the formative years was Congregation Beth Israel, the first congregation in the Pacific Northwest. It provided the spiritual and social cement the community needed to meet the challenges of the frontier environment.
As the population increased, the institutional structure of the community expanded with a succession of organizations--Hebrew Benevolent Association, Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society, B'nai B'rith, YMHA, to name the most prominent. As the population increased with the immigration of Polish and Prussian Jews in the 1870s, some internal struggle occurred. The more traditional Jews, primarily from eastern Prussia, formed a new congregation, rejecting the reforming, Americanized Beth Israel. In the 1880s the split became further institutionalized as the wealthy German Jews established the Concordia Club, a social club for the Jewish elite.
Despite this division, Portland Jewry remained fairly homogenous through the 1880s. The outstanding distinguishing characteristic of the community was its adaptation to American society and its integration into city life. The pioneer Jews sought the same rewards as their gentile neighbors--economic success and community stability. They experienced little racial prejudice and moved with no apparent self consciousness in Portland society. Although they were excluded from the Arlington Club, the bastion of the gentile elite, Portland's Jews maintained close business and social ties with the non-Jewish community. This experience was similar to that in other frontier communities where Jews entered city life early in its development.
While becoming Americanized, Portland Jewry clung to its cultural heritage. Its organizations and institutions which showed the effects of the frontier environment were still distinctively Jewish. And in business, success was fostered by intra-group and family networking and credit arrangements that were familiar in Europe.
The use of "new social history" techniques provides a view of all levels of Jewish society. By using data gathered from federal and county census records, burial records, marriage records, and tax records, as well as institutional records and personal papers, the development of institutional structure, leadership roles, and class divisions can be understood.
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Cline, Robert Scott, "Community Structure on the Urban Frontier: the Jews of Portland, Oregon, 1849-1887" (1981). Dissertations and Theses. Paper 77.