When you go to a Jewish summer camp in Maine, people think that everyone comes from the Greater Boston area. This was true for the majority of my camp friends. But there were campers from Portland, Lewiston-Auburn, Bangor, and even from Mars Hill –four hours further to the north of Bangor.
This past Shabbat brought back memories of camp and my Maine camp friends. I participated in the Maine Conference for Jewish Life at Colby College. Nearly 200 strong came together to celebrate Shabbat, to study with and learn from each other. Most of all, many of those who gathered were looking to feel connected to each other.
Currently, there are 10 synagogues throughout Maine. Chabad even has a presence in Portland. At one time there were more. During the 1960s and 1970s Portland, Lewiston, and Bangor all had Jewish Community Centers (a new JCC will soon be built in Portland). There is an ongoing effort to document the rich history of the Jewish communities of Maine through Documenting Maine Jewry.
I attended a session that was an open conversation about being a religious minority in Maine. Many participants spoke about how Maine – and New England – is so dominated by the Christmas season and how that experience has impacted their families, especially their school age children. Everyone present had an opportunity to speak. I offered that while we lived in a very progressive town in New Jersey, my children would echo the experiences of feeling different every December.
The synagogue leaders who grew up in Maine spoke of a statewide youth group for all denominations that was the place to be for teenagers during the 1960s and early 1970s. They wished that such an experience had been available for their children who are now grown.
In terms of synagogue life, a number of synagogues are really making a go of it. Beth Israel Congregation in Waterville, ME seems like an amazing place. Through a unique partnership between Colby College and Beth Israel Congregation, Rabbi Rachel Isaacs serves the congregation, as Hillel Director at Colby and on its faculty teaching Hebrew and other classes. Her salary is shared evenly between the synagogue and Colby, and the college takes care of her benefits and housing on campus. In five years, the congregation has grown from 20 families to 70. And Colby Hillel has grown dramatically as well. And there is lots of joint programming between the students and the congregants.
Beth Israel Congregation in Bath just went through a strategic planning process. Congregation Bet Ha’am in Portland is in the midst of a comprehensive campaign of more than $3 million to pay off its mortgage and grow its endowment fund. And there seems to be great enthusiasm for the future among the leadership of Temple Beth El in Augusta and Temple Shalom in Auburn.
There are many challenges. Like many synagogues, membership and finances top the list. For most of the Maine synagogues, dues are under $1000. Budgets are under $200,000. Most of the buildings are old, in need of some repair, and expensive to heat. Retirees continue to move to Maine and comprise a chunk of the membership at a few congregations.
Yasher Koach to Rabbi Isaacs, Rabbi Erica Asch, and Mel Weiss for planning such a great conference and for instilling in those who attended continued excitement about their work to build a sacred Jewish connected community throughout Maine.