When Ben Rigberg’s wife came to Walla Walla as a visiting assistant professor at Whitman College in 1998–99, he started wondering how such a small Jewish community in such a Christian area could survive for so many years.
This led Rigberg, a retired professor who is legally blind, to interview past and present members of Congregation Beth Israel. It became his mission to discover the history of this unusual community. After living in Walla Walla for 14 months, he put together a manuscript with all of the historical information he collected. The manuscript is scheduled to be published by the Western States Jewish Historical Society in October.
“Ben Rigberg has done an excellent history of the Walla Walla Jewish community and particularly the congregation,” said Beth Israel member Arnold Barer.
It was during his research that Rigberg discovered that the Walla Walla synagogue had been around for 60 years. The first and only rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel, Rabbi Franklin Cohn, came with his family to the United States in 1939, escaping the Holocaust in Germany. Six to eight months later, they were adopted by the Jewish community in Walla Walla. The Cohns were one of a few refugee families that moved to Walla Walla at that time.
On Dec. 26, 1940, with the help of the Cohns, Walla Walla’s first synagogue was incorporated and built at 329 Rose Street, on the site that is now the parking lot of an Elks Lodge.
Walla Walla had had a Jewish community since the mid-1880s, but not a synagogue until then. The building was used for services and as the Cohn family’s home. The synagogue later moved to a building at the corner of Alder and Roosevelt streets. Officially titled Congregation Beth Israel Myer Youdovitch Memorial, the synagogue gets its name from a prominent Jewish merchant who died in 1938. People came from as far as Baker’s City, Ore., and Yakima to attend the synagogue. “It was the only organized congregation around,” said Alan Barer, an active member of Beth Israel from 1929 to 1999. “Walla Walla’s a very old Jewish community.”
During World War II, Barer had his Bar Mitzvah on Rosh Hashanah. Due to the large military population from the air force base in Pendleton, Ore., more than 300 attended. Two or three rabbis supervised his training.
From the 1930s through the 1950s, word spread that Walla Walla wasn’t a hospitable place to live, said Barer. Membership committees in Walla Walla excluded Jews.
“There was a great deal of prejudice,” said Barer. “I think some of it endures today.”
After learning about the 60th anniversary, Rigberg urged the congregation to celebrate. And, on Friday, Feb. 9, and Saturday, Feb. 10, it did just that with a visit from the late Franklin Cohn’s son, Rabbi Hillel Cohn of California. On the evening of Friday, Feb. 9, Cohn led Shabbat service, giving a sermon entitled “What Binds Us Together.”
“We gather together in this lovely synagogue on this Shabbat and it makes us especially mindful of what we share together as Jews. Many miles separate us, many years have separated us and yet as we gather together tonight nothing separates us,” Rabbi Hillel Cohn’s said in his sermon. “We have good reason to celebrate tonight. Sixty years in the life of a community is a significant accomplishment. Though, as Ben Rigberg’s history has documented so well, there were many years of virtual dormancy, this synagogue has survived and it is a tribute to many and certainly to those of you who are here tonight.”
At the Saturday morning service the next day, Cohn read from the congregation’s Torah. “It was a very special moment for me,” the rabbi said.
Rabbi Hillel Cohn moved to Walla Walla when he was only one year old and when he was three he moved to Seattle, where his father was rabbi of Herzl. Cohn had the opportunity to re-establish old relationships and reminisce about Walla Walla’s Jewish community at the celebration. “I was on a high the whole time,” said Cohn. The anniversary was a way he could express gratitude to the people of Walla Walla who opened their hearts.
“That small community was one of great warmth and comfort,” said Cohn. The congregation is smaller now than it was when Cohn was first there, he said. Cohn has been a rabbi in California for 38 years now and retires June 30. “I may go back and help the congregation in Walla Walla from time to time,” said Cohn. “Possibly once a year.”
“I remember when [Rabbi Hillel Cohn] was an infant in a crib,” said Alan Barer. He said it was very fortunate that Rigberg ended up in Walla Walla. Presently, the congregation numbers about 65 families, and serves as synagogue for the Jewish students of Whitman College. The major holidays are celebrated along with monthly Friday-evening services, potlucks and occasional social events. Services are led by community members and other lay leaders.
In the last several years, the Jewish community has experienced renewed interest and activity. Shalom, a Whitman College Jewish group organized in 1992, occasionally brings in guest speakers and musical groups. To this day, Rabbi Franklin Cohn has been Congregation Beth Israel’s only rabbi. The synagogue has been maintained by lay leaders since Cohn left. Ed Granek was the lay leader for more than four decades, before passing the role on to current lay leader Richard Kaplan in 1993.
“Without [Rigberg’s] interest in pursuing our history, we would never have celebrated our 60 years, let alone re-established contact with the original rabbi’s son,” said Sharon Kaufman-Osborn, an active member of the congregation.