09 September 2008

Washington: Bellingham's Jewish history

The Bellingham Herald (Washington) discusses the history of Congregation Beth Israel here.

Tim Baker has been researching the community for more than 12 years, and will present "A Century of Jewish Life in Bellingham," a slide show about the congregation's history at 2pm, Sept. 21, at Whatcom Museum. In addition, there will be a photo exhibit on local Jewish life, a display of religious items, and a display of plans for a new Beth Israel synagogue.

Bellingham's synagogue is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its incorporation, and its membership is looking forward to breaking ground for its new building.

Beth Israel is one of the oldest synagogues in Western Washington. The oldest in the state, in Spokane, was dedicated on Sept. 14, 1892, followed four days later by Seattle's first synagogue.

The roots of the congregation start in the late 1800s, when Jewish immigrants from Skopishok and Rakishok, Lithuania settled here, perhaps attracted by the Klondike gold rush.

The first religious services were in 1900. Six years later, the community of 25 or so families bought a vacant church at 1406 F St., and remodeled it into an Orthodox synagogue. Russian immigrant Joseph Polakoff, the first rabbi, was hired in 1908.

Bellingham's early Jews lived in the Lettered Streets neighborhood so they could walk to services. Many worked or owned businesses in Old Town. Local Jewish businesses included gold rush outfitters, tailor shops and second-hand stores.

In 1925, Beth Israel moved into a new synagogue at 2200 Broadway, and in the 1950s, it became a Conservative synagogue. In 1986, members voted to become a Reform synagogue, which spurred another Conservative synagogue which later disbanded

Today there are some 200 families at Beth Israel.

Click here for the cemetery list of Beth Israel Cemetery.

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