Whenever I find myself outside Olympia speaking to a member of a local Jewish community, I will invariably be asked two questions. First, I will be asked, “How many Jews are there in Olympia?” When I respond that we have about 150 affiliated households, but we serve almost double that, plus more unaffiliated, I get a surprised look.
The second question is some version of, “Isn’t Olympia very anti-Israel?” To which I reply that although there is a local minority who are very vocal and who get a lot of attention, it isn’t really like that, and life in our state capital is quite comfortable.
Which leads me to believe that maybe I should say a word or two about our Olympia Jewish community and Temple Beth Hatfiloh.
This year of 5773 (2012-2013), Temple Beth Hatfiloh has been celebrating its 75th anniversary. The local Jewish families — mostly merchants — decided in 1937 to incorporate as a synagogue, and set out to build a synagogue building. In June 1938, the original building of TBH was dedicated at the corner of 8th and Jefferson in downtown Olympia and it served as our home for almost 70 years.
The history of our local Jewish community stretches back further than 75 years, though. Olympia is the home of the first Jewish settlement in the area, the first Jewish cemetery (still in use) and the first Jewish organization in Washington Territory, the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Puget Sound, established in 1873 to create and maintain the aforementioned cemetery. TBH absorbed the Hebrew Benevolent Society in the 1950s and we continue to manage the cemetery.
In the decades following those early years after the establishment of TBH, the Jewish community remained relatively stable. The core of families who established the congregation continued to maintain and guide it, and slowly new families would arrive. The congregation began to truly grow in the 1970s with the growth of state government and the establishment of The Evergreen State College. After a long period of lay leadership and support from rabbis in Tacoma and Seattle, by the late 1980s the congregation sought its own rabbinic leadership, first with part-time Rabbi Vicki Hollander, then with full-time Rabbi Marna Sapsowitz. I joined the congregation 10 years ago this coming July.
As with any community there were growing pains and changes. A number of families left TBH to form a Conservative congregation. After many years of being unaffiliated, TBH decided to affiliate Reconstructionist. And by the 1990s it became clear that our sweet shul was not big enough to house our growing congregation and the number of programs — including a full religious school — we were offering. After numerous options were weighed and rejected, the opportunity arose to purchase the Christian Science Church, just three blocks from our original home. We moved in 2004 with a Torah walk and communal celebration, and spent the next several years in renovation and expansion until we dedicated the new space in 2008.
Today, TBH continues as a full congregation, very active in community and interfaith affairs, and serves a diverse community comprised of people who come from a wide range of backgrounds and approaches to Judaism.
I understand how some folks might not understand what is going on in Olympia, since our small Jewish community is sometimes off the radar screen. And when unfortunate events like the Olympia Food Coop’s boycott of Israeli goods occur, it overshadows the strong and vibrant Jewish community that exists here.
I will admit, though, that we sometimes do things a little differently here. For example:
• We don’t have High Holiday tickets or fees. We just publish the service schedule and open the doors.
• We hold a major fundraiser every year — Blintzapalooza — during which we welcome in the community and sell blintzes, bagels and used books. This year we raised $11,000. Then we give all that money away to local charities.
• We held a “Community Conversations” project in which we got a large number of people — both members and non-members — together to sit and share their personal Jewish journeys, not for any strategic planning process, but simply to have people meet each other.
So, yes, we do some things differently down here in Olympia. I like to think that being a smaller congregation we get to do some interesting and creative things. But mostly we just keep the flame of Judaism alive in the South Sound region, as we have been doing for 75 years.
And everyone is welcome to help us celebrate at our 75th Anniversary Street Fair on Sunday, June 2. Then you can see what we are all about!