On Sunday, March 29, 1936, B'nai B'rith (Sons of the Covenant) Lodge No. 1220 and its women's auxiliary are instituted in Walla Walla. With organizational representatives from Seattle and Spokane present, as well as Walla Walla community leaders, some 25 members of the new lodge celebrate at Walla Walla's Grand Hotel the new presence of this Jewish fraternal and service organization in southeastern Washington. Within a few years Jewish leaders will also establish a synagogue in Walla Walla, Congregation Beth Israel Myer Youdovitch Memorial, and the lodge -- particularly its women's auxiliary -- will do much to support regional military operation during World War II. After performing decades of community service, by the 1970s both the lodge and women's group will be dissolved.
From Jewish Settlers to a Jewish Community
Jews were among the earliest settlers in Walla Walla, many of whom were merchants around the time that the town became a supply center for gold prospectors in the early 1860s. While a number of Jewish names may be found on graves in the Jewish section of the municipal cemetery, Mountain View, there is little evidence about Jews or a Jewish community in Walla Walla until immigration of Eastern European Jewry increased during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
This latter group of immigrants became settled and their businesses prospered in the early decades of the twentieth century. By the 1930s, there may have been as many as 75 Jewish families in Walla Walla. When David Lovett (1907-1950) arrived at Whitman College to teach English in 1936, he was surprised to discover that he was the only Jew among the faculty and students, but he could speak of the presence of a Jewish community with which he could connect.
In the 1930s, Jews in and around Walla Walla began to establish formal institutions to sustain and strengthen their community. The first organization they established was a social and philanthropic organization. In 1936, 20 heads of Jewish families signed a petition for the establishment of a lodge of one of the oldest and largest Jewish fraternal groups, B'nai B'rith (Sons of the Covenant). Founded in the mid-nineteenth century, B'nai B'rith began as a men's social organization; in 1897 women's auxiliaries were permitted. In the early twentieth century, the organization evolved into a cultural and philanthropic one, existing for the benefit of Jewish culture and communities and to promote good relations between Jews and Christians. It became global in scope and reach, and operated orphanages, hospitals, retirement homes, and an emergency relief fund.
Walla Walla Lodge No. 1220, the 50th in the Western United States and the first in Southeastern Washington, was granted a charter and a Ladies' Auxiliary, No. 163, was established as well. P. Allen Rickles of Seattle, president of the district, officiated at the institution of the lodge on March 29, 1936. In addition to the 25 members of the new lodge from Walla Walla, Pendleton, and Pasco, a delegation of 50 from Spokane were present as were prominent members of the Walla Walla community, including the mayor of Walla Walla and the president of Whitman College. The event, held at Walla Walla's Grand Hotel, included speeches, music, and a banquet.
Around the time that the B'nai B'rith lodge was founded, synagogue services began to occur regularly in private homes. One of these homes belonged to Myer Youdovitch, the first vice-president of the lodge. After his death in 1938, his wife, Celia, proposed the establishment of a synagogue in his name. A house was acquired for the congregation and its rabbi, and Congregation Beth Israel Myer Youdovitch Memorial was incorporated in 1940.
Military operations in the region brought a number of Jewish servicemen to the area and the women's auxiliary actively supported war-related activities by knitting and sewing for the Red Cross, furnishing a day room for soldiers at the local air base, and acting as hostesses at the United Service Organization. After the war, the lodge and auxiliary continued their services to the Jewish and broader communities, including volunteer work at Walla Walla's Veteran Affairs Hospital.
But the size of the Jewish community declined in the 1960s and in 1967 the B'nai B'rith Lodge was dissolved due to lack of activity. The women's auxiliary continued to function for a few more years before it, too, was dissolved.