History of the Museum
The Oregon Jewish Museum, the Pacific Northwest’s only Jewish museum, was founded to examine and preserve the rich cultural heritage of one of Oregon’s earliest immigrant groups and to bring innovative traveling exhibitions to the region. The history of OJM began more than a decade before its actual founding when, in 1974, volunteers formed the Oregon Jewish Historical Society and embarked on an extensive oral history project. What sparked their endeavors was an interest in preserving the stories of elderly Portland Jews displaced from their neighborhood in Portland’s first urban renewal project. Even today, this area, known nostalgically as “old South Portland”, evokes memories of kosher butchers and bakers, the ice cream parlor of the Old World Drug Store, owned by Mr. Rothkowitz—Mark Rothko’s uncle—and the sound of Yiddish on the street.
In 1989 Rabbi Joshua Stampfer held a meeting to explore the idea of creating the first Jewish museum in the Pacific Northwest. This was the beginning of the Oregon Jewish Museum. A dedicated group of volunteers emerged who were very determined not to have physical space but to become a “museum without walls” with the goal of bringing exhibitions about Jewish art, culture and history to the region. Over the next decade the museum sponsored a number of traveling exhibits, displayed in rented and borrowed spaces throughout Portland.
In 1996, the Museum acquired the archives of the Jewish Historical Society of Oregon, comprising major collections of organizational records, family papers, photographs and ephemeral materials dating from 1850 to the present—the largest collection of the documented and visual history of Oregon’s Jews. Today this collection forms the core of the museum archives and is available to researchers, students and scholars.
With a collection to care for and a growing presence in the community, OJM began a campaign to hire a part-time professional and secure a permanent home for the museum. In July 1998, the first director took charge. At the same time, the museum moved into a donated office suite at Montgomery Park in northwest Portland. Seven exhibitions, a variety of special programs, a poetry reading, a quarterly newsletter, the first full-color exhibition catalogue, forums on Jewish genealogy, and Sunday Family Days resulted in significant growth for the museum in membership, audiences, and visibility in the community. This established the museum as a recognized and important part of Portland's cultural landscape.
When OJM left Montgomery Park in October 2000, the museum moved to a small, storefront location in the heart of Portland’s Old Town. Our first exhibit, "Faces and Places of Old South Portland" opened in January 2001 and since then we have been building our portfolio of exhibitions and programs exploring the experience of Oregon Jews.
Today the Oregon Jewish Museum endeavors to build a dynamic institution that embraces Jewish identity and community, illustrating, by example, the ways in which a community with traditional roots preserves, teaches, and lives by its values as a distinct minority. We believe in the power of culture to build and engage community in a flexible and dynamic way, using the lens of culture to shape dialogue about historical and contemporary issues.