Washington State Jewish Historical Society (WSJHS)

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 5/22/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20781
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The Washington State Jewish Historical Society (WSJHS) was founded in 1980 to broaden and carry forward the work of the Seattle Jewish Archives Project (SJAP), which began in 1968 as a joint venture of the Women's Division of the Jewish Federation of Seattle and the Manuscripts and Archives Division (now Special Collections) of UW Libraries. The goal of the society is to gather, preserve, and make available to the public primary source materials -- including photographs, documents, and oral histories -- that trace the long history of the Jewish community in Washington. More than a half-century after the founding of the archives project, the effort continues. The historical materials in the collection are catalogued and maintained by the Washington State Jewish Archives at UW Special Collections, and the WSJHS in 2018 launched the online Washington Jewish Museum to make them more accessible to the public.

From Earliest Days

The first recorded Jewish presence in what is now the state of Washington was a Latvian traveler, Adolph Friedman, who briefly settled near today's Tacoma in 1845. This was before the region was even officially a part of the United States; its governance was shared with Britain, and it was designated simply "Oregon Country" on maps ("The Jewish Traveler").

Subsequent Jewish immigration to Washington, both as a territory and state, came in distinct waves. First came German-speaking Jews in the 1850s and 1860s, including Isaac and Seraphina Pincus and Hyman and Louisa Goodtime, who settled near Steilacoom. In 1869 Jewish merchant Bailey Gatzert (1829-1893) came to Seattle and opened Schwabacher and Co., one of the city's earliest hardware and general-mercantile stores. Six years later he was elected mayor, the first and so far (2019) only Jew to occupy the position. And in 1870 Edward Salomon (1836-1913), a Jewish Civil War hero, was appointed governor of Washington Territory by President Ulysses S. Grant (1882-1825).

The second wave of Jewish immigration began in the 1880s with an influx of Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe, followed in the early years of the twentieth century by Sephardic Jews, who were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in the fifteenth century and settled largely in Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, and the Island of Rhodes. Most of this latter group who came to Washington settled in Seattle, which has the largest percentage of Sephardim compared to the total Jewish population of any city in the nation.

The U.S. Census taken every 10 years does not gather information about religion, but as of 2018 Washington's Jewish population was estimated to be slightly more than 72,000, with the heaviest concentration by far in Seattle and King County. Although only about 1 percent of the total state population, Washington's Jewish community has for more than 150 years been active in all aspects of civic life and cultural life, including business, government, the arts, sports, and, notably, philanthropy. In the years since statehood in 1889, there have been many Jewish state legislators, town mayors, and other elected and appointed officials. These varied contributions have not been unrecognized -- HistoryLink alone has nearly 100 essays under the topic "Jews in Washington." But the first systematic attempt to document the Jewish experience was started by a group of Seattle women in 1968.

In the Beginning: The Seattle Jewish Archives Committee

The Seattle Jewish Archives Committee (SJAP) was created on April 22, 1968, by the Women's Division of the Jewish Federation of Seattle. The group's first meeting convened in what was then called Manuscripts and Archives Division of UW Libraries, and it marked the beginning of a fruitful collaboration that as of 2019, although with changed names, had endured for more than half a century.

The SJAP worked quietly and received little publicity, but within 10 years it had amassed a considerable amount of primary-source material on the Jewish experience in Seattle and King County. This collection formed the basis for the Washington State Jewish Archives (WSJA) in what is now called the Special Collections library at UW, where it is conserved and catalogued. In addition to the physical archive, much material, including documents and photographs, is available on the library's WSJA website.

The Washington State Jewish Historical Society

In 1981 the Washington State Jewish Historical Society was established as an independent, statewide, non-profit organization, with a mission to broaden the scope and activities of the SJAP and "to promote interest in and knowledge of the life, history, and culture of the Jewish people and communities of the State of Washington" ("About the Jewish Archives"). The connection with UW Libraries continued, with Special Collections providing the facilities to organize, catalogue, store, and maintain the often-rare materials the society gathers, while the WSJHS provides the archivist to curate, research, and engage the community regarding the wealth of materials available in the archive.

It is both the civic contributions and the day-to-day personal lives of Jewish Washingtonians that the WSJHS documents and preserves for future generations. It offers a range of programs that includes special events and exhibits; oral-history interviews with members of the Jewish community; tours of historic Jewish Seattle; and a growing collection of artifacts and photographs. It has also published several books, including a prize-winning history, Family of Strangers, written by Molly Cone, Howard Droker, and Jacqueline Williams; Distant Replay: Washington's Jewish Sports Heroes; The Jewish Experience in Washington State, A Chronology: 1845-2015; and Yesterday's Mavens, Today's Foodies: Traditions in Northwest Jewish Kitchens.

Fifty years after it was founded, WSJHS in 2018 launched the online Washington Jewish Museum, which includes documents, photographs, biographies, videos, and podcasts. It is the first and so far (2019) only museum in the state that documents the entirety of Washington's Jewish history (Seattle's Holocaust Center for Humanity, located at 2045 2nd Avenue, was established in 1989 for the more narrowly focused purpose of teaching and preserving the history of the Holocaust). The WSJHS has as a long-range goal the eventual creation of a physical museum to complement its digital presence.


Nahma Sandrow, "The Jewish Traveler: Vancouver," November 2006, Hadassah Magazine website accessed May 5, 2019 (http://www.hadassahmagazine.org/2006/11/12/jewish-traveler-vancouver/); "Jewish Population in the United States by State (1899 - Present)," Jewish Virtual Library website accessed May 5, 2019 (https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jewish-population-in-the-united-states-by-state); "About," Washington State Jewish Historical Society website accessed May 5, 2019 (https://www.wsjhs.org/about/); "Washington State Jewish Archives," University of Washington Special Collections website accessed May 6, 2019 (https://content.lib.washington.edu/jhpweb/); "Washington Jewish Museum," Washington State Jewish Historical Society website accessed May 5, 2019 (https://www.wsjhs.org/museum/home.html); HistoryLink Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History,  "Gatzert, Bailey (1829-1893) (by Lee Micklin), and "Jewish governor of Washington Territory Edward Salomon takes office in the spring of 1870" (by Lee Micklin), https://www.historylink.org/ (accessed May 5, 2019); "Cartogaphy of Oregon, 1507-1848, "The Oregon Encyclopedia website accessed May 5, 2019 (https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/cartography_of_oregon _1507_1848/#.XM8wBTBKjmg).

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