The Oregon Jewish Museum, the Pacific Northwest’s only Jewish museum, examines and preserves the rich cultural heritage of one of Oregon’s earliest immigrant groups. Through creating and hosting a variety of community-based and traveling exhibitions, maintaining a library and archive, presenting films and other cultural programming, and engaging in educational outreach, we seek to stimulate dialogue about identity, culture, and assimilation. We provide opportunities for Jews and non-Jews alike to understand the Jewish experience as a paradigm both for cultural survival and inter-cultural understanding.
In 1989, Rabbi Joshua Stampfer invited members of Portland’s Jewish community to a meeting at his synagogue to explore the idea of creating the first Jewish museum in the Pacific Northwest. This first group of volunteers created a “museum without walls” that would bring traveling exhibits about Jewish art, culture, and history to venues throughout the region. This early incarnation of the museum brought notable exhibits including “The Jews of Greece,” “The Legacy of Bezalel,” and “Jews, Germany, and Memory” to area libraries, galleries, and synagogues.
In addition to presenting exhibits, OJM includes collecting as part of its mandate. In 1993, the museum began discussions with Gustav and Mira Berger, prominent collectors of ceremonial Judaica. The Berger’s bequeathed their collection to the museum—with the restriction that the museum have an adequate facility to house and exhibit their artifacts. Three years later, OJM—and its burgeoning collection—moved into a small office space in the Oregon History Center.
1996 was a big year for OJM. The museum merged with the Jewish Historical Society of Oregon, acquiring their archives dating from 1850 and their artifact collection. The museum also embarked on a successful three-year campaign to raise money for a part-time director. In 1999, the new director negotiated for a space on the 7th floor of a mixed-use facility in Northwest Portland. In its new location, the museum underwent significant growth in membership, name recognition, and acquisition of artifacts.
As OJM’s collection and exhibition program grew, so did the need for space. In 2001, the museum moved to a storefront in Old Town, Portland’s oldest historical district. In this higher-visibility venue, the museum opened its first major-community based exhibition. “A Call to Serve: Oregon Jews in the Armed Services” examined the experience of Oregon Jews who had served in the US military. This exhibit brought in a broad audience that extended beyond the Jewish community, and paved the way for future community-based exhibits.
After nearly a decade in the Old Town location, the OJM moved into its own building in Northwest Portland, which is its current—and hopefully permanent—home. The former commercial film building houses OJM’s extensive archives and artifact collections, administrative offices, a screening room, and provides ample space and an accessible location for the community to gather and deepen their understanding of the Jewish experience in Oregon and beyond.