Jewish Community of Walla Walla

  • By Michael J. Paulus Jr.
  • Posted 7/23/2011
  • Essay 9842
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Although the history of Judaism in the Far West is largely connected with the development of urban centers, Jews did move to and settle small towns on the frontier. The first wave of Jewish immigration into Washington Territory was connected with the California gold rush. The second was connected with the large immigration of Eastern European Jewry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These waves first reached the coast and then moved toward the interior. Each reached the small town of Walla Walla, which emerged in the 1860s as a supply center for gold prospectors and then became an important agricultural center. Each wave contributed to the eventual growth of a Jewish community in Southeastern Washington. In the late 1930s, formal Jewish institutions were established in Walla Walla, including a synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel Myer Youdovitch Memorial.

The Pioneers

The first well-known Jewish pioneers in Walla Walla were the Schwabachers, who arrived in the area in 1860 and operated one of the most extensive merchandizing networks in the West. But by 1860 there were already other Jewish-owned stores in Walla Walla, including Jacques Bauer’s tobacco shop.

Jacques Bauer (1834-1890) had arrived in valley by 1860, the year in which he opened his shop on the main street of the newly established town of Walla Walla. In 1864, Bauer traveled to Portland to marry Julia Heymann (b. 1843) in the Beth Israel Synagogue, which had been founded a few years earlier. The first of their seven children, Emilie Francis, born in 1865, may have been the first Jewish child born in Walla Walla. Julia Bauer taught foreign languages at her home, and when Whitman College, chartered in 1859 as Whitman Seminary, began offering courses at the college level in 1882, she was listed as an instructor of French, German, Spanish, and Italian. The Bauer’s youngest child, Marion (1882-1955), composed more than 140 works and received an honorary master’s degree from Whitman College in 1932. In 1947, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra performed her piece "Sun Splendor."

Louis (1837-1900), Abraham (1838-1909), and Sigmund (1841-1917) Schwabacher arrived in Walla Walla after the discovery of gold in the eastern part of the territory (now Idaho) in 1860, bringing with them mining and other supplies to sell to prospectors. The brothers prospered and built one of the first brick buildings in Walla Walla and also a grist mill to grind wheat for shipment to Portland. In 1869, they opened a store in the smaller town of Seattle. In Walla Walla, Sigmund served on the city council, was a director of the First National Bank, and helped raise funds for the Seattle-Walla Walla Railroad. Although there are few records documenting the activities of other Jewish settlers in the early days of Walla Walla, some of their names are recorded on graves at the municipal cemetery, Mountain View, part of which may be the oldest Jewish cemetery in the state.

The Second Wave

As Benjamin Rigberg observed, the first wave of Jewish immigrant into the Walla Walla Valley was more of a trickle. The second wave, which came about a half-century later, was closer to a wave -- "a slow but steady stream from East Europe" (Rigberg, 48). This wave, following a national pattern, coalesced into a Jewish community in Walla Walla.

Among the first of these immigrants, arriving around 1900, was Phillip Epstein, who opened a salvage firm; Myer and Celia Youdovitch, who opened a furniture store (later the Empire Furniture Company); and the Strauss family. A number of other families followed, including the Barers, the Gottliebs, the Carlisles, and the Neslins. By the 1930s, there may have been as many as 75 Jewish families well established and flourishing in Walla Walla. When David Lovett (1907-1950) arrived at Whitman College to teach English in 1936, he was surprised that he was the only Jew among the faculty and students. But he did find a Jewish community to connect with in the town and wrote home, "They all treat me well -- both Jew and Gentile."

An Emerging Community

Shaped by a positive sense of community but also by rising anti-Semitism signaled by the post-World I presence the Ku Klux Klan, the Jewish community in Walla Walla began to mature and establish its own institutions. In 1936, responding to a petition signed by 20 heads of local Jewish families, B’nai B’rith (Sons of the Covenant) granted a charter for Walla Walla Lodge No. 1220. A Ladies’ Auxiliary, No. 163, was also established. These organizations provided social and charitable activities for Jewish communities in Southeastern Washington and neighboring cities in Oregon.

In the late 1930s, synagogue services began to occur regularly in private homes. One of these homes was the Youdovitch’s, and after the death of Myer (1938) his wife Celia proposed the establishment of a synagogue in his name, Congregation Beth Israel Myer Youdovitch Memorial. In early 1940, a Jewish agency asked the new congregation if it would support Rabbi Franklin Cohn (1906-1971) and his family, who had fled Germany. The congregation responded to the request by locating and renting a house at 329 East Rose Street, which served as both a residence and a synagogue. The synagogue was incorporated in December 1940 and the new rabbi led regular services, but Cohn had to supplement his income by working as a bookkeeper at the Epstein junkyard. He also served as a volunteer civilian chaplain for Jewish personnel at the air base in Pendleton, Oregon, and was involved with many Walla Walla institutions, including the State Penitentiary and Whitman College.

The Cohn family left Walla Walla in 1942 for Seattle, where Cohn became rabbi of the Herzl Conservative Congregation. Rabbis from around the area traveled to Walla Walla to serve the small synagogue, and in the 1940s several Jewish families who had moved into the area began to take on leadership roles within the congregation. The presence of Jewish soldiers, stationed at air basses in Walla Walla and Pendleton, increased attendance at services, but after the war and the closure of the bases the membership of the synagogue declined.

Congregation Beth Israel

In the post-war years, lay leaders led services at Congregation Beth Israel on Friday nights and local rabbis, rabbinical students, and others visited to lead High Holy Days services. For a time, the synagogue operated a Sunday school. The prayer book used by the congregation for decades, one published by the National Jewish Welfare Board during World War II, incorporated elements from Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox denominations and it was suitable for the diverse congregation.

As children left for college and did not return to Walla Walla, the Jewish community aged and decreased in size. In 1967, the B’nai B’rith Lodge was dissolved due to lack of activity. The Ladies’ Auxiliary, however, continued to function for a few more years.

In 1972, some 40 families celebrated the first Passover Seder held in a new synagogue building at the corner of Alder and Roosevelt streets, but by the mid 1980s there were only a dozen Jewish families affiliated with Congregation Beth Israel and services were held only a few times during the year.

A number of professionals who moved into the area during the last decades of the twentieth century, many of whom were affiliated with Whitman College, brought new life to the synagogue. In 1992 one of these individuals, Sharon Kaufman-Osborn, started a newsletter for the synagogue, introduced a series of special family services, and organized a Jewish student organization at Whitman College, where she is a counselor.

The synagogue is now affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism and the congregation, which consists of about 35 families, meets regularly and celebrates the major holidays. Services are still led by lay leaders, community members, and visiting rabbis. A Sunday Hebrew school for children operates during the school year.

Sources: Jeanne E. Abrams, Jewish Women Pioneering the Frontier Trail: A History in the American West (New York: New York University Press, 2006); Molly Cone, Howard Droker, and Jacqueline Williams, Family of Strangers: Building a Jewish Community in Washington State (Seattle: Washington State Jewish Historical Society, 2003); Ellen Eisenberg, Ava F. Kahn, and William Toll, Jews of the Pacific Coast: Reinventing Community on America’s Edge (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009); David Lovett Papers, Whitman College and Northwest Archives; Benjamin Rigberg, Walla Walla: Judaism in a Rural Setting: Congregation Beth Israel of Walla Walla (Los Angeles: Western States Jewish History Association, 2001); Benjamin Rigberg Judaism in Walla Walla Collection, Whitman College and Northwest Archives, Walla Walla; The Jewish Experience in Washington State: A Chronology, 1845-2005 (Seattle: The Washington State Jewish Historical Society, 2006).

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