Congregation Beth Israel has a rich heritage that dates back to the early 1900s. Fleeing from pogroms and restrictions in the Russian Pale of Settlement, Jews immigrated to the U.S. in vast numbers between 1880 and 1924. Among them were families from the shtetls of Skopishok and Rakishok, in northeastern Lithuania.
In 1898 or 1899, the first of these families arrived in Bellingham. We don’t know why they chose to come here, although legend has it that the initial immigration was connected with the boom associated with the Klondike gold rush in Alaska. These early arrivals were soon joined by relatives and additional families from the same area of Lithuania, all of whom seemed to be somehow related. Around the same time or slightly earlier, several German Jews moved to Bellingham and opened large department stores downtown. These German Jews were generally more assimilated and better off than their Lithuanian brethren. While the German Jews conducted business uptown, the Lithuanian families opened small second-hand shops on lower Holly Street (Old Town), or worked as delivery men and peddlers. Although they had different worship styles and commitments to Jewish life, the Lithuanian and German Jews of Bellingham cooperated to some extent to establish a viable Jewish community.
As the Jewish population grew, the desire for organized services grew as well. The first reference to a community-wide gathering is in 1903, when high holiday services were held in the Odd Fellows Hall on Commercial Street. (The location is now a bank parking lot.) It is unknown if services were held elsewhere during the rest of the year, but the hall continued to be rented each fall for high holiday services until 1906. By that time, the Jewish population had grown to nearly 100 people. In May 1906, the Jewish community purchased an old church building near the corner of F Street and Astor, just up the hill from the present location of the Lighthouse Mission. The building was purchased for $950.
Thereafter, regular prayer services were held at the F Street shul, led either by lay leaders or itinerant rabbis. The community quickly became more structured. In 1907, Rabbi Joseph Polakoff was hired to serve the community, and the following year, the synagogue was legally incorporated as Congregation Beth Israel. Trustees on the incorporation papers were: L. Jacobs, P. Brenner, L. Lobe, E. Schuman. L. Schwartz, I. Schuman, and A. Levin, with L. Jacobs president. These are the founding fathers of the Bellingham Jewish community.
Rabbi Polakoff did not stay long and was followed by several different rabbis. In 1913, Rabbi Benjamin Cohen was hired and stayed at least four years. A cheder was active at this time, with at least 31 students, and a local chapter of B’nai B’rith was organized in 1914. Other organizations followed, including the Sisters of Israel Society and the Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Society. The synagogue was Orthodox in its orientation. Families kept kosher, people walked to shul, and women sat in the balcony for services.
In 1925, a new synagogue was dedicated at the corner of Broadway and Irving to serve the religious needs of some 45 Jewish families in Bellingham. The Torah scrolls were carried under a canopy through the Lettered Streets district to the new building, where the dedication services were attended by over 400 people. The synagogue was filled to capacity, and people overflowed down the steps. The speakers included rabbis from Seattle and Vancouver, as well as Mayor Kellogg and other prominent members of the community. Also taking part was the new rabbi, Max Gottlieb, who had recently arrived from Oakland, California. Rabbi Gottlieb and his wife Sarah served the congregation here for 10 years.
The depression years were difficult in Bellingham, as elsewhere. With few job opportunities, many young people moved to Seattle or elsewhere to find jobs, and the Jewish community slowly declined in numbers. A local branch of Hadassah that had begun in 1927 died out in the 1930’s. (Around the time of World War II, however, it was revived and continues to this day.) The community was served by Rabbi Henry Okolica for several years in the early 1940’s, but after he left, the community was not in a position to hire another rabbi. Services were held with lay leaders and visiting rabbis for the next 10 years. In the early 1950’s the community found several young people approaching bar mitzvah age, and a decision was made to hire someone to prepare them for this event. Fred Gartner, a cantor in Vancouver, British Columbia, accepted the appointment and moved to Bellingham with his wife Emma. Although never officially ordained as a rabbi, Rabbi Gartner took on the responsibilities associated with that office and was recognized by the Jewish community as their rabbi.
Rabbi Gartner served the Bellingham community over 30 years, energizing synagogue life, and overseeing a period of significant growth and change. Although the synagogue was still officially orthodox when he arrived, most of the members were active participants in the non-Jewish life of Bellingham, and they saw the need to modernize synagogue activities as well. At one service, Rabbi Gartner finally invited the women in the balcony to join the men on the main floor. This move had the support of the congregation for the most part–only one old time member walked out.
Women became more and more a part of synagogue life. The Sisterhood (originally known as the Beth Israel Ladies Auxiliary) was organized in 1952 at the home of Rose Thal, with about 25 women present. The first elected officers included Estelle Greenblat, President, and Shirley Adelstein, Vice-President. The minutes of the Sisterhood’s meetings document the many ways they contributed to the life and continuation of the synagogue.
For the next 30 years after Rabbi Gartner’s arrival, the synagogue was Conservative in its orientation, although as far as we know, it never formally affiliated with the United Synagogue of America. Rabbi Gartner became very active in interfaith dialogue and outreach to the Bellingham community, making people more aware of the synagogue and the role of its members in the community. He was joined by other members of the congregation, notably Frances Garmo, who spoke to schools and civic organizations about Judaism, the Holocaust, and Jewish culture.
In 1982, Rabbi Gartner retired. Rabbi Harold Rubens replaced him, but remained only two years. In the process of searching for a new rabbi, the congregation began to actively consider the synagogue’s affiliation. Various speakers were invited to address the value of affiliating with the Reform, Reconstructionist, or Conservative movements. After months of consideration and discussion, the Board recommended in early 1986 to affiliate with the Reform Union of Associated Hebrew Congregations.
In 1987, the congregation hired Rabbi Michael Oblath to serve as their first Rabbi under their new affiliation with the UAHC. Synagogue membership continued to expand, and it became obvious that the congregation would soon outgrow the building they were in. High holiday services had become increasingly crowded, and there was no longer enough classroom space to meet the needs of the religious school. Therefore, in 1990 a Long-Range Planning Committee chaired by Dan Raas was established to consider future facility needs, including the question of whether to expand at the present site or build elsewhere.
In the meantime, the congregation had been struggling with issues like participation of non-Jews in services, burial of non-Jews in the cemetery, and the question of patrilineal descent. Disagreement between members on these issues was heightened by positions adopted by the national Reform movement. In 1993, a small number of members broke away and established the Conservative Congregation Eytz Chaim. For several years Eytz Chaim members held services in a variety of locations around the city. Then in the Fall of 1996 they dedicated their own synagogue building near the corner of Eldridge and Walnut, in an old parish hall turned over to them by St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
Rabbi Oblath resigned in 1996 in order to pursue graduate studies at the University of California/Berkeley. His successor was Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz, raised in Brooklyn, and most recently from a pulpit in Palm Desert, California. Rabbi Liebowitz immediately energized the services with new music and song. He taught a variety of adult education classes, and initiated a scholar-in-residence program with speakers such as Rabbi Abie Ingber and Rabbi Lee Bycel. When not attending to his rabbinical duties, Rabbi Liebowitz’ interests included searching for meaning in old episodes of Star Trek, as well as excavating dinosaur fossils at various points around the North American continent.
Rabbi Liebowitz left Bellingham in June 2002 for a pulpit in Sacramento, California. Rabbi Yossi Zylberberg served the congregation from August 2002 until June 2005.
Rabbi Cindy Enger served as our rabbi from July 2005 through June 2012. Under her leadership our congregation grew significantly to more than 200 households. Through her spiritual guidance Rabbi Enger offered us a variety of new learning and worship opportunities. Construction of our new synagogue began under her tenure.
The congregation continues to grow, with current membership at more than 200 family units. It maintains an active religious school as well as youth groups, a lively Sisterhood, Brotherhood, and numerous committees and study groups.