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A Willamette University historian examines Portland and Oregon history from a Jewish perspective in her latest book, “The Jewish Oregon Story: 1950-2010 (Oregon State University Press, 336 pages, $24.95).

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Ellen Eisenberg, the Dwight and Margaret Lear Professor of American History, has written extensively on American Jewish communities in the West. In this book, she follows several narrative threads, including the history of Jews in old South Portland, shifts in the roles of Jewish women, and Jews’ increasing civic engagement in Portland.

That last thread pulls out numerous names important in Portland and Oregon history: the Schnitzer family, known for real estate development and arts patronage; Harry Glickman, who brought the Trail Blazers to town; Richard and Maurine Neuberger, Oregon politicians who rose to the national scene; and Vera Katz, three-term Portland mayor, to name just a few.

Eisenberg will give a book talk from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 27, at the Oregon Historical Society, 1200 S.W. Park Ave. The event is presented in partnership with the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education and Oregon State University Press.

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Here is an excerpt from “The Jewish Oregon Story.”

For the Oregon Jewish community 1971 was a banner year. In the Portland metropolitan area, home to over 85 percent of the state’s Jews, the highlight was the completion of an expansive Jewish Community Center. Community leaders touted the new JCC as “more than just a beautiful, impressive edifice,” claiming it would be “the symbol and the reality of Portland Jewish Community life.”

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Offering recreational, health, cultural, social, and educational opportunities for community members from infants to seniors, the center was designed to be “a second home for the entire Jewish community and its friends for generations to come,” according to Julius Zell, chair of the building campaign. Only two miles from the Robison Jewish Home for the Aged and boasting a campus that included new facilities for the community-wide Portland Hebrew School, the JCC promised to provide the glue that would ensure continuity. Harold Schnitzer, chair of the JCC building committee, explained, “The Community Center has become the focal point of the whole community. It used to be the synagogue was the focal point, but there has been a shift of emphasis to the social aspect of our daily living.”

The new JCC (it became the Mittleman Jewish Community Center in honor of Helen Mittleman in 1976, after her husband, real estate developer Harry Mittleman, paid off the mortgage) not only offered capacious and modern facilities, but anchored an emerging community hub in Southwest Portland, approximately four miles from the South Portland neighborhood that had been the community’s center since the early twentieth century. Less than a mile from the new JCC, on the newly named Peaceful Lane, stood the impressive six-year-old building of Congregation Neveh Shalom, with its enormous facade in the shape of the Ten Commandments. With sanctuary seating for nine hundred, the building could amply accommodate the growing congregation, formed through the merger of Neveh Zedek and Ahavai Sholom. The Jewish Review reported just after that building’s opening in November 1964, “all of the activities of the Congregation have experienced significant growth ever since the move to the new location.” Similarly, Portland Hebrew School’s relocation from the old South Portland neighborhood to the new JCC campus significantly boosted enrollment.

Over the next several decades, the new cluster in Southwest Portland included additional Jewish institutions, such as the Portland Jewish Academy day school. Nearby, the May Terrace Apartments, dedicated in 1981, offered an independent retirement living option adjacent to the Robison Home; the campus, now called Cedar Sinai Park, later added Rose Schnitzer Manor and Rose Schnitzer Tower, as well as adult day services. A second cluster, in Portland’s near Northwest — home since 1927 to the venerable Congregation Beth Israel — also began to develop, with the erection of a new building for Shaarie Torah in 1965. Decades later, Congregations Beth Israel and Shaarie Torah were joined in their Northwest neighborhood by Congregation Havurah Shalom and the Oregon Jewish Museum. The unprecedented fundraising campaigns and resulting modern facilities for the older congregations, along with the new institutions, suggested not only the rapid growth of the Jewish community in the final decades of the twentieth century, but also a sense of optimism for the future.

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Even as these projects began in the 1960s and early 1970s, there were concerning signs. The new buildings were initially motivated less by community growth than by a combination of neighborhood degradation, poor facilities, and displacement by urban renewal and freeway construction. In the late 1950s, as Portland struggled with sluggish growth, the city embraced a program of urban renewal. The strategy was to build up the downtown core as a business and entertainment center by “sanitizing untidy transitional blocks on the downtown fringe,” and clearing much of the low-rise housing and small businesses there to make way for highways, parking, and high-rise development. Fringe areas — including those like the South Portland neighborhood that had been the center of the immigrant Jewish community — were maligned as dilapidated and crime-ridden; a Portland renewal promotional piece from 1962 was titled “Meet Creepy Blight.” A major urban renewal project of the era, the South Auditorium Project, proposed clearing over one hundred “economically isolated” acres in South Portland “to turn this old ‘stopover’ neighborhood into a place of offices and businesses.” The new I-405 freeway paved over adjacent areas, razing the neighborhood and, with it, much of the infrastructure of the Jewish community.

Excerpt courtesy of Oregon State University Press.

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