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New OPB Oregon Experience Documentary Examines the History of Oregon’s Earliest Jewish Settlers

“The Jewish Frontier” airs January 25 on OPB TV and online; advance public screening event in Portland  

This month, OPB will premiere a new Oregon Experience documentary that examines the history of the Jewish people who helped build the American West and shape the state of Oregon. They were some of the earliest settlers, arriving with the Gold Rush and staying to create businesses, civic organizations and communities.  

The one-hour documentary “The Jewish Frontier” airs January 25 at 9 p.m. on OPB TV and online at at the same time.  

In Europe, Russia, and elsewhere, Jews faced a long history of persecution—but in the unsettled American frontier, they could create their own destinies. Arriving as merchants, they were welcomed for the much-needed goods and services they provided to growing towns.  

They ranged from junk peddlers in Portland’s immigrant community to entrepreneurs who built multi-million dollar businesses. Some of these individuals include Aaron Meier of Meier & Frank, who opened his first Portland store in 1857 and went on to operate one of the nation’s largest department stores; Bernard Goldsmith, a mediator between the military and Native Americans, who became Portland’s first Jewish mayor; and Sigmund Heilner, who followed gold miners to Southern and Eastern Oregon and established one of the region’s longest-operating businesses.  

“The Jewish Frontier” tells the story of pioneering Jews from across the state— from a Jewish farming commune near Roseburg that gave equal rights to men and women, to South Portland, home of Orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia along with Mel Blanc, Trail Blazers founder Harry Glickman, internationally-renowned painter Mark Rothko and more.  

Through Urban Renewal that displaced homes and synagogues to the devastating aftermath of the Holocaust, Oregon’s Jews have continually found new ways to honor the past, and set the foundation for a future, while at the same time redefining what it means to be Jewish in the American West.   

This new Oregon Experience documentary features rare historical photos, film, and more than two dozen interviews with people across the state, including:  

  • Pete Asch, archivist, Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education
  • David Zaslow, rabbi, Havurah Shir Hadash, Ashland
  • Joshua Boettige, rabbi, Temple Emek Shalom, Ashland
  • Ellen Eisenberg, professor of History, Willamette University
  • Daniel Eliezer Froehlich, genealogist
  • Gerry Frank, Meier & Frank
  • Joshua Rose, rabbi, Congregation Shaarie Torah, Portland
  • William Toll, historian
  • Michael Kaplan, rabbi, Congregation Ahavath Achim
  • Joshua Stampfer, rabbi emeritus, Congregation Neveh Shalom
  • Steven Wasserstrom, professor of Jewish and Religious Studies, Reed College
  • Harry Glickman, founder, Portland Trail Blazers
  • Miriam Greenstein, Holocaust survivor
  • Noel Blanc, Mel Blanc’s son  

“The Jewish Frontier” is written and produced by Kami Horton and edited by Lisa Suinn Kallem. It airs Monday, January 25 at 9 p.m. on OPB TV and will be available to watch online at at the same time. For more information, visit Oregon Experience online.   

In advance of the TV premiere, OPB is hosting a free, public screening event on January 19 at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center in Portland. Free and open to the public, the event begins at 7 p.m. (doors open at 6:30) and will feature the full-length documentary and a Q&A with producer Kami Horton.  

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