CNS 150: A Pictorial Look at Where We Came From
By Rachael Walkinshaw, the Sara Glasgow Cogan Judaic Studies Intern at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education. All images are from the archives at OJMCHE.
Congregation Neveh Shalom is a merger of two synagogues, Ahavai Sholom, founded in 1869, and Neveh Zedek, founded in 1892. Julius Eckman served as the first rabbi at Ahavai Sholom. Rabbi Eckman had come from San Francisco six years earlier to serve as rabbi to Beth Israel, yet he soon left, finding the Reform movement too far from tradition for his liking. It was this sense of duty to preserve tradition that made him a good fit for Ahavai Sholom, although he was only there for three years. The earliest members were traditionally minded Prussian and Polish immigrants, and for decades Ahavai Sholom was referred to as the “Polisha shul,” despite actually leaning more toward the German style of worship. Searching to balance and blend modern progressive ideas with conservative rituals from varying countries of origin, Ahavai Sholom was a vibrant, if sometimes tumultuous enterprise, where modern Jewish immigrants could find their place in America.
By the time of its first-known constitution in 1889, Ahavai Sholom had built a synagogue on SW Sixth between Oak and Pine, established a cemetery, and survived the ups and downs of its first two decades with a growing congregation, yet without consistent religious leadership. The constitution reflects a step toward modernization, specifying that official business should be conducted in English, although services and lectures were also held in German—not Yiddish. Notably, the constitution makes no mention of a rabbi in its objectives, maybe because finding a rabbi who could steady the growing pains in these early years proved difficult. Fortunately, chazzan Robert Abrahamson, who settled at Ahavai Sholom in 1886, was able to play various roles for most of four decades, performing the duties of cantor and rabbi as needed, lending much-needed stability to the still-maturing congregation.
The earliest wave of Jewish immigration to Oregon consisted of Central European single men driven by economic circumstances. In contrast, the Russian immigrants who arrived around the turn of the twentieth century landed in Portland after fleeing violent persecution. They were mostly families, determined to preserve tradition. Congregations Neveh Zedek and Talmud Torah, who would merge in 1902, were both founded by Russian immigrants who sought the same balance as their Ahavai Sholom neighbors—to safeguard and carry forward tradition, while still embracing modernity in liberal worship and rituals. Even at the shul founded by Russian immigrants, services were conducted in English and German, often featuring an orderly choir (the antithesis of the noisy, chaotic scene which characterized traditional Eastern European services), and regular Sunday services were advertised.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Ahavai Sholom had outgrown its building, and in 1904 a new synagogue was erected at SW Park and Clay. This building would be home for the next nearly 50 years, witnessing many changes and significant growth of the congregation, including Ahavai Sholom’s formally joining the Conservative movement in 1921, an arson fire in 1923, after which the synagogue was rebuilt on the same site, and a wave of German refugees in the 1940s, bringing with them a desire for tradition. Once again the newest members helped to bring balance between tradition and progress.
After the merger between the two Conservative Russian congregations, Neveh Zedek Talmud Torah (usually referred to as simply Neveh Zedek) was also in need of a new building large enough to house its growing membership and educational goals. When the cornerstone was laid for a new synagogue in 1911, the congregation boasted 121 families and 144 students at the Sabbath school, in clear need of the home which would serve them for the next five decades.
Neveh Zedek, like Ahavai Sholom, struggled to find a steady rabbi, leaning heavily on their cantor, Abraham Rosencrantz, who acted as the interim rabbi, led services, and directed education. In this lovely photo of Cantor Rosencrantz with the boys’ choir he directed, the bridge he formed between many parts of synagogue life is evident. Rosencrantz served Neveh Zedek until his death in 1936 and is today remembered for his wonderful voice as cantor.
In 1937, Ahavai Sholom welcomed Rabbi Charles Sydney, bringing his steady, calm leadership to guide the congregation for the next 14 years—much longer than any previous rabbi. While the Jewish community reeled from the impact of the Second World War, the influx of German refugees and survivors of the Holocaust into the congregation shifted the tone of services toward the more traditional. Rabbi Sydney kept the congregation on an even keel, weathering the changes in stride.
By 1950, membership at Ahavai Sholom had grown to 350 families, prompting the building of a new synagogue at SW 13th and Market. Yet fewer than ten years later, the City of Portland would undertake its South Portland urban renewal project, razing most of what had long been considered the heart of the Jewish community, despite the reality that Jews had moved all throughout the city in the preceding decades. This photo shows the demolition in progress, with Ahavai Sholom’s still-new building on the left and the JCC in the center. Rabbi Joshua Stampfer arrived in Portland in 1953, just in time to guide Ahavai Sholom steadfastly through these turbulent changes.
In 1961, Ahavai Sholom and Neveh Zedek both voted to merge, unifying Portland’s Conservative movement into one congregation. After much vigorous debate, the property on SW Peaceful Lane was selected, continuing the shift westward of many of Portland’s Jewish institutions. On March 6, 1965, nearly one hundred years after its history began, Neveh Shalom dedicated its new home, the Ten Commandments serving as a beacon for Jewish unity in Portland.
We would like to thank all of the staff at OJMCHE, particularly Judy Margles, Anne LeVant Prahl, and especially Rachael Walkinshaw, for their extensive work putting together this pictorial essay of our very beginning 150 years ago, through the merging of Ahavai Sholom and Neveh Zedek, and the dedication of our present location.
Rachael Walkinshaw is a Judaic Studies minor at Portland State University and currently the Sara Glascow Cogan Judaic Studies Intern at the OJMCHE. Her great-grandparents were members of Ahavai Sholom, and she has been involved with Jewish education for more than ten years, teaching at Shir Tikvah’s Nashira Project.