We’ve been exploring the history of a 110-year-old building in the Vernon neighborhood at NE 20th and Going, once home to Congregation Tifereth Israel, an eastside Jewish community, and then to several African American Christian congregations.
We’ve always been interested in transitions between building uses and occupants: what creates them, how they go, how people feel and react, what happens after.
In this case, the transition from Jewish synagogue to African American church brought out the best in the respective religious communities, but was a low-water mark for enlightenment in the neighborhood, which shouldn’t really come as a surprise given Portland’s troubled history of official and unofficial racism.
The Tifereth Israel community had its roots in Russia and the Ukraine. Many of its earliest members were immigrants who fled discrimination and violence there at the turn of the last century. As families became established in Portland, and new generations came along, the Tifereth Israel community grew to a point where they needed more space than the 1,000-square-foot Alberta Shul could provide. Congregation leaders—many of whom lived in the surrounding neighborhood—focused on a slightly larger building at NE 15th and Wygant, which was then the Redeemer Lutheran Church, a community that was about to move out and up to provide space for its own growing membership.
In December 1951, Tifereth Israel leaders announced they were going to buy the nearby Redeemer Lutheran building, and sell the Alberta Shul:
The Oregonian, December 29, 1951
The move to the new venue apparently went fine, with services starting up there in 1952. But things got complicated that fall when the empty Alberta Shul went up for sale. Another growing church community, the Mt. Sinai Community Church, made an offer on the former synagogue, which ignited concern in what was then a mostly white neighborhood.
The realtor handling the sale dropped the deal like a hot rock once the neighbors started to push and as they were quoted in the newspaper with thinly-veiled reasons for opposing the African American church, which had gone out of its way to keep the peace in the neighborhood. Read this next story carefully.
The Oregonian, October 8, 1952
Tifereth Israel leaders and others stepped in when the real estate agent stepped out, and the deal went forward.
The Oregonian, October 10, 1952
Lest you think this was just a real estate transaction for an empty building, have a look at the following passage of a letter from Tifereth Israel leaders to real estate agent Frank L. McGuire, which reads as true and important today as it did in the 1950s.
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.
Irate the deal was progressing, neighbors upped the conflict further by taking a petition signed by 90 residents to City Hall. Portland City Council refused to take it up.
The Oregonian, October 24, 1952
Even thought the Alberta Shul transition did go forward, deep currents of racism were affecting Northeast Portland neighborhoods, home mortgage lending practices and individual real estate transactions. The Tifereth Israel letter, written by elders who had survived generations of their own discrimination, encouraged a higher ground.
We’d like to learn more about Mt. Sinai Community Church and to hear from any who have known this building in the past.