Tag Archives: Jewish community in Olympia

Kilgannon: Temple Beth Hatfiloh is 75!

Anne Kilgannon, with thanks to Beth Dubey for background information.

Louis Bettman arrived in Olympia and set up a general merchandise store in 1853. Within a year, two other establishments with Jewish proprietors opened for business in the muddy little village that would become the city of Olympia: Goldman and Rosenblatt’s People’s Emporium and M. Louisson’s shop, filled with goods from San Francisco.  They offered the townspeople and local farmers and loggers—and maybe most especially their wives—everything from dress trimmings imported from New York, to violins and groceries. It was the beginning of the end of frontier conditions. Like many of the early Jewish settlers in the west, they came as town dwellers and merchants, not as farmers or workers in the woods or mills.

They were part of a wave of German-speaking Jews leaving Europe between 1830 to 1860, seeking economic betterment and escape from the harsh conditions imposed on them by anti-Semitic regimes then dominant in central Europe. They came to the Pacific Northwest often by way of California, lured west by the gold rush. Some of the young men came alone, unmarried and without connections, who by dint of hard work established themselves and only later found wives and set up families. Others were part of far-flung family networks that supported new endeavors in pioneer towns and built upon their connections to establish businesses. Gustave and Bertha Rosenthal setting up a shipping business and dealt in wool, coal and oysters. The Kaufman brothers sold clothing and Isaac Harris stocked all manner of dry goods. Edward Salomon, who had served as a general during the Civil War, notably came to Olympia as the ninth Territorial Governor. Others followed.

This group concentrated on gaining a foothold in the fast-opening societies; they pitched in to build the towns and create the institutions that promoted economic growth and community survival. They were often more intent on assimilation than finding an outlet for religious expression. Having experienced the persecution and discrimination of the Old Countries, they tended to downplay their separate identity and focused on a more shared pioneer experience. For some, like George Jacob Wolff, feelings of gratitude for freedom dominated their emotions and cemented their attachment to their new homes. While they did establish a Jewish cemetery in 1873—one of the first in the Territory, no synagogue or temple was built in Olympia during this period.

The histories of these first Jewish pioneers have been gathered in an outstanding study, Family of Strangers: Building a Jewish Community in Washington State, by Molly Cone, Howard Droker and Jacqueline Williams, published by the Washington State Jewish Historical Society and the University of Washington Press, 2003. The authors describe three distinct waves of immigration, the first as described, followed by Yiddish-speaking Jews from eastern Europe who came from 1880 to 1924, and a separate population of Sephardic Jews from Turkey and parts of Greece, coming just after the turn of the century. The thesis of these authors is that these waves of immigrant Jews were not only “strangers” in the communities of the west, but also strangers to each other, with completely different origins, languages, customs, and observances. Their history is one of finding their place in the wider community and learning to help each other and live together.

As with any group of people, there was generosity and misunderstandings, conflict and compassion, friendly helping hands and suspicion. Each community in the Territory and then State carved out its own path within patterns shared and repeated in different locations. Other than in Seattle where a burgeoning population allowed more expression of differences, most Jewish immigrants in Washington struggled to create communities of co-religionists of any stripe. This tension of differences and isolation was an undercurrent that influenced the development of religious institutions in the smaller centers. Family of Strangers traces this complex history through several generations and developments up to the near-present. It helps provide the historical context for understanding and appreciating the achievements of each community’s growth and survival.

The progress of the community in Olympia was marked by the welcome received family by family as more Jewish people found their way here. The Jewish Benevolent Society, founded in 1873, leant a helping hand. The next year, land was dedicated for a Jewish cemetery. The Berkowitz/Bean family came in the early years of the twentieth century. It was in their home that the Torahs were kept, to be brought to the Labor Temple or Eagles Lodge for services on High Holidays. The Cohn and Hollander families added to the community, and many others came in the Thirties: the Goldberg family who opened a furniture store to operate alongside Anna Blom’s bookstore, Eddie Dobrin’s women’s apparel store, M.M. Morris’ Specialty Shop, Joe Jenkin’s dry cleaners, and others, to name only a few business establishments.

Finally, by the late 1930s, a strong group existed who could venture taking the next important step as a community.  Centralia and Chehalis had banded together to build a temple in 1930, as had a group in Aberdeen. They shared the architectural plans they had used and supported the Olympia group in their fundraising, headed by Earl Bean. Despite the lingering Depression, the wider community pitched in too, helping with building supplies, purchasing raffle tickets and pledging contributions. Land was cleared on Eighth and Jefferson Street and the venerable Olympia construction firm of Phillips and Newell erected the temple that became the center for religious and community life until 2004. By then the congregation had grown beyond the capacity of the original building and a move was made to the present location.

Temple Beth Hatfiloh was built in time to act as a strong center of activities and refuge as many Jewish people fled Europe in the wake of growing persecution, and then during World War II as a base for families whose members were serving overseas. After the war, although served only by a visiting rabbi for a period, more normal activities and services filled the calendar. A tradition of raising funds for the Olympia-wide charities saw Temple members hosting huge annual rummage sales; in more recent years they have hosted giant book-bagel-and blintz sales. For a time religious education classes had to be offered in Tacoma, but as the Olympia group grew, more could be organized within this community.

With an influx of new families brought to Olympia by the growth of state government and the establishment of Evergreen State College in the 1960s and 1970s, the Temple was assured of a solid foundation and future. Not until the 1980s could the congregation support their own rabbi, at first part-time and then finally full-time. The program for religious education also developed as more families joined. Besides growth in numbers, the congregation has gradually shifted in approach from Orthodox to a mix of Conservative and Reform practices. Eva Goldberg, an early chronicler and leader in the congregation, saw the community as “an extended family” ready to welcome all with open arms and assistance from its earliest days. Something of that spirit still prevails and adds strength and resiliency to this vital Olympia institution.

The Olympia Historical Society congratulates the members of Temple Beth Hatfiloh on the occasion of their seventy-fifth anniversary. They are an integral and important part of the history and growth of Olympia. Their many contributions, energy, success and longevity benefits the whole City.

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