In the Beginning
In the beginning, Washington state was pretty much unformed and void. Over time, tribal communities by names we know today — Duwamish, Snohomish, Puyallup, Sammamish — proliferated. Then European explorers by names we also know today — George Vancouver, Peter Puget, Joseph Whidbey, Robert Gray — began scouting out the region in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
1845: The First Jewish Arrival
Adolph Friedman is the first known Jewish person to come to what was then known as Oregon Territory, around Tacoma, in 1845. He was a Latvian adventurer, and that’s about all we know.
1879: Or Was He the First?
Late Canadian historian Bruce Alistair McKelvie cites a legend that Jews arrived much earlier to the Pacific coast, when Kublai Khan’s Jewish contingent was blown out into the Pacific Ocean in the late 1200s. As proof, Hebrew words and Jewish customs have been “found” in native dialects and rituals.
It may not be all myth, though. Another legend has it that Spokane’s first Jewish resident, Simon Berg, who arrived in 1879, was told by local natives that earlier traders had been “egg-eaters,” too — an apparent reference to Jewish dietary habits.
1800–1900: Settling Down
Jewish entrepreneurs joined others heading to the Northwest in search of successful lives in the 1800s. They worked in clothing and dry goods, real estate and liquor, and they intermarried with other Jewish families.
1880: Mining for Opportunities
Some sought gold — but most, more realistically, sought business opportunities catering to hopeful miners. Marcus Oppenheimer traveled from Kentucky to the northeast corner of Washington and built a successful outfitting career. The little town of Marcus (population: 183) is named for him.
1869: Early Jewish Leaders
Industrious Jews took on civic leadership roles in no small way. In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Edward Selig Salomon, who had commanded a regiment of volunteer Jewish and European immigrant soldiers at the Battle of Gettysburg, as governor of Washington Territory. In 1875, Bailey Gatzert became the first (and so far only) Jewish mayor of Seattle.
1898: The Lost Republic
Jews were briefly drawn to Republic, in faraway Ferry County, when the Colville Indian Reservation opened to miners. A veritable Jewish community, enticed by ads in Yiddish papers and a promise of free land, swelled and then shrunk after agricultural and weather conditions proved too rugged. Today, the only remaining structure from that time is the Kaufman Cabin. Little is known of Harry Kaufman, but could it be that his tiny log cabin holds big Jewish history?
1890: A Community Forms
Back in the urban centers, benevolent societies sprouted up to help those in need, support community members, and to bury the dead. Seattle, Spokane, and Tacoma had established synagogues by around 1890. These three synagogues, all Reform style, were the first established communities:
- Temple Emanu-El - Spokane, 1892
- Ohaveth Sholum - Seattle, 1892
- Congregation Beth Israel - Tacoma, 1892
By the early 1900s, Jews from Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire were making their way to Washington, and Seattle overtook places like Tacoma and Spokane as the central hub for Jewish life. Jews established a presence at Seattle’s Pike Place Market and introduced a professional class of clergy, doctors, teachers, and business professionals.
The Puget Sound coastline continues to be a corridor between the state’s most active Jewish communities, with over 70,000 Jewish-identifying residents.