Where We Live: Oregon’s historic Jewish community


An estimated 35,000 Jews live in the Portland metro area today

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Oregon is home to a large Jewish community as old as the state itself.

Jews from Germany and Central Europe settled in Oregon in 1848, according to Oregon Jewish Museum Director Judy Margles.

“They were escaping difficult conditions there,” Margles told KOIN 6 News.

Later waves of Jews came from Russia, Turkey and the Isle of Rhodes in Greece.

These so-called “Sephardic Jews” became the center of Portland’s Jewish community in the 1920s.

Margles said a number of now-familiar names trace their heritage to these immigrants, including the Menashe family.

Sol Menashe was a successful insurance businessman and his heirs prospered in financial services and real estate.

Sam Schnitzer from Russia made his fortune in the scrap and steel industry. His grandson Jordan Schnitzer and Jordan’s mother Arlene are prominent names in real estate and philanthropy.

Aaron Meier joined Emil Frank to establish the Meier and Frank department stores in the mid-1800s. Meier’s son Julius became Oregon’s 20th governor in 1931.

The late Vera Katz was one of several Jewish Portland mayors.

Another mayor, Neil Goldschmidt, became governor and U.S. transportation secretary. His legacy was tarnished by revelations that he sexually abused a minor while he was mayor.

Portland’s Mel Blanc was the voice of famous cartoon characters from Bugs Bunny to Daffy Duck and the Road Runner.

Eva and Leslie Aigner are among the handful of Holocaust survivors who came to Oregon in the 1950s. Leslie was at Auschwitz. He met Eva in Hungary in 1956 where they were liberated by Allied forces.

Leslie and Eva Aigner at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, July 20, 2019. (KOIN)

They said Oregon was the first place they could practice their religion without risk of persecution — or death.

“It means a lot to me to have this freedom,” Eva said.

Oregon’s Holocaust Memorial was dedicated in 2004. It’s located in Washington Park.

On July 15 at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill into law mandating Holocaust education in public schools.

Today, an estimated 35,000 Jews live in the Portland metro area.

The first synagogue in Portland was Congregation Beth Israel, established one year before Oregon became a state. It remains a center for Jewish life in Portland to this day.

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