Sunday, September 19, 2010

USA: 1952 Sale of Orthodox Synagogue to Black Church Provides Lessons of Religious Respect and Tolerance

USA: 1952 Sale of Orthodox Synagogue to Black Church Provides Lessons of Religious Respect and Tolerance
by Samuel D. Gruber

Former Congregation Tifereth Israel, Portland Oregon.
Photo: Oregon Historical Society published in S. Lowenstein,
The Jews of Oregon.

The recent misguided hysteria over the proposed creation of a mosque and Islamic Cultural Center in Lower Manhattan (on the model of a Jewish JCC) was in my mind when I was struck by a remarkable passage in a seemingly unrelated book I was reading last week – Steven Lowenstein's The Jewish of Oregon 1850-1950 (Portland, OR: Jewish Historical Society of Oregon, 1987).

In his recounting the history of the Jewish congregations of Portland and their many synagogue buildings - which were often were recycled church buildings – Lowenstein tells of the 1952 sale of a synagogue by the Orthodox Northeast Portland Congregation Tifereth Israel (known as the "Alberta shul" and founded in a former house), which “inadvertently found itself involved in a difficult conflict.” The congregation was moving to a new home, the former Redeemer Lutheran Church at NE Fifteenth and Wygant and sold its former synagogue (through real estate agent Frank McGuire) to a Christian congregation - Mount Sinai Church. Mount Sinai Church was an African-American church, and some neighbors were upset and tried to block the sale.

The congregation's letter to the real estate agent stated in part:

At the time said agreement was entered into, this congregation had no knowledge of the purchasers other than their name and that they were a Christian congregation. Later it developed that the members of Mount Sinai Congregation are Negroes and pressures have been put upon us to back out of the deal for no other reason than that the purchasers, though Christian, are also Negro. We regard such pressures as being violative of the principles of Americanism, of Judaism, of Christianity and of common decency. ...Man has no dearer right than the privilege of worshiping God in his own way. To deprive any group of people of the right to meet and to worship merely because God chose to make them a part of the colored majority of mankind is repulsive to Americans who love their country and the great principles of democracy which distinguish our land from the totalitarian states wherein liberty and religion are destroyed. In welcoming our colored brethren to our old synagogue of blessed memory, we are mindful of the quotation from Hebrew scripture, "Have we not all one Father; hath not One God created us?" We hope that they also will find God within its walls and that He will answer their prayers and ours that He teach us "to love one another." In the event you refuse to close the sale, we desire to be released from our listing agreement so that we may ourselves consummate the moral agreement we have entered into.


The Portland Jewish community, and especially the ADL B'nai B'rith, led by its western regional director, David Robinson, unequivocally supported of the congregation. (How very different than ADL's recent waffling about religious rights over the Manhattan mosque).

The neighbors appealed the sale to the City Council, but it refused to block the sale. In November, 1952, the Mount Sinai Church was dedicated. Tifereth Israel remained a small Eastside congregation for seventy-five years, gradually evolving from Orthodox to Traditional. In September, 1986, it merged with Shaarie Torah.

Congregation Tifereth Israel's letter is a text we should remember well. The congregation's stance - hardly predictable in 1952 - should be remembered and emulated in regards to all areas of religious freedom and tolerance. We should be led by our pursuit of justice, not by fear (especially when all local zoning requirements are met).

Though the congregation did not refer to George Washington's famous lines penned to Moses Seixas of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790, that "All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support." To Washington's Constitutional position for religious tolerance, Congregation Tifereth Israel added an appropriate religious basis.


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The church as it appears today (courtesy google.maps)

Another aspect of the Tifereth Israel story is that it gives the lie to the common myth that Orthodox Congregation do not and cannot sell synagogues for use as Christian churches. It is well know that scores of former Orthodox synagogues in America (and elsewhere) are used as churches. There is common belief in the need that a congregation cannot knowingly sell a synagogue for Christian use because Christianity is an idolatrous religion. No matter what some Jews may think, Christianity is not an idolatrous religion, and the Tifereth Israel story tells us clearly what was most often the case, that congregations knew to whom they were selling their synagogues. Congregation Tifereth Israel's letter tells us frankly that they one congregation, at least, comfortable with the sale.


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