The 1880’s brought the development of the retail district on Pacific Avenue in downtown Tacoma, along with a flood of young Jewish merchants seeking opportunity. Despite the unavailability of kosher food and the expectation of a six-day workweek, the majority of Tacoma’s Jewish pioneers found ways to maintain their Jewish identity. Many timed their buying trips to coincide with Jewish holidays, often purchasing their merchandise through a vast Jewish network of suppliers. By 1888 they banded together to form their own benevolent society, now the Home of Peace Cemetery.
The vast majority closed their stores for the High Holy Days, leaving the Tacoma News to lament in 1890, "…and in Jewish circles all business is at a standstill, which makes the retail portion of the city bear a somewhat deserted appearance." That year also brought the formation of a local chapter of B’nai B’rith and a Harmony Club, bringing Jews of Seattle and Portland to Tacoma for dances and other social functions. The women formed the Lady Judith Montefiore Society (a forerunner of today’s Sisterhood) operating a religious school for the children and providing charity where needed.
Anyone who has heard the phrase, “two Jews, three opinions,” knows that few decisions are unanimous. An article in the Tacoma Daily Ledger on Saturday, October 1st, 1892, set a pattern for the next sixty-eight years in Tacoma. “Yom Kippur, the Jewish feast of the atonement, is being celebrated to-day by the Hebrews with special observances... The Orthodox Hebrews are holding their services in Elks' hall, and the reform sect in the Unitarian church.” Tacoma’s Jewish community had grown large enough to agree to disagree.
Those who met that year in the Unitarian church had formally organized as congregation Beth Israel. Tacoma’s first synagogue building, located on the corner of South 10th and “I,” was dedicated in September of 1893. The new congregation chose to affiliate with the Reform Movement.
Those who chose to worship in a more Orthodox style were joined over the next several decades by a flood of immigrants from eastern Europe. Passionate about their Jewish identity and practices, they began meeting as a minyan in the rear of Hugo Stusser’s store, later holding services in a rented room at the Sampson Hotel.
Chevra Talmud Torah was formally organized in December of 1908 and incorporated in January of 1909. They commissioned a Torah that is still in use today. By 1914 the close-knit group was able to purchase a church building on Tacoma Avenue South, which was used through 1922. The congregation was the second in Washington to choose an Orthodox affiliation.
Meanwhile, Tacoma’s Jewish neighborhood was moving up from an immigrant group residing on lower “E” Street (now Fawcett) to an established community living in the north end. Temple Beth Israel sold their building on South 10th and “I” in 1918, dedicating a new temple on North 4th and “J” in 1922.
Chevra Talmud Torah followed suit, building a similar building (faced in brick rather than stucco) on South 4th and “I,” that was dedicated in 1925.
The thirties brought several key changes. Under the direction of Rabbi Baruch Treiger, Talmud Torah changed its affiliation to Conservative and its name to Sinai Temple. Rabbi Treiger also worked to form a Junior League known as “Treiger’s Tigers,” building friendships among young people from both congregations. Twenty years later those same youngsters would bring changes of their own.
In 1953 Rabbi Richard Rosenthal was hired to serve the pulpit of Temple Beth Israel. Perhaps in part because he himself was a European immigrant, he eventually became a friend to both congregations. After much discussion, arguing, and compromise, Tacoma’s two temples voted to merge in 1960. The north temple was sold and services were held in the south temple until the construction of Temple Beth El in 1968.
Rabbi Richard Rosenthal became the spiritual leader of the combined congregations. He was named rabbi of the merged temples in 1960 and served Temple Beth El until his retirement in 1997. Rabbi Rosenthal then served as rabbi emeritus until his death in 1999. Rabbi Mark S. Glickman served as Temple Beth El 's rabbi from 1997 until June 2004. Rabbi Bruce Kadden, Temple Beth El's current rabbi, began his rabbinate at TBE in July 2004.
The new Temple Beth El building, located in Tacoma's growing west end at 5975 S. 12th St., was dedicated in May 1968. Vic Lyon and Jerry Spellman were leaders in planning and fund-raising for the new temple. The building contains a number of interesting architectural, spiritual, and symbolic features (see a tour of the building here).
In 1993, Temple Beth El was renovated. Over 19,000 square feet in new space was added for the growing congregation.