Maine Jews: Building Sacred and Connected Community

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.

14 comments on “Maine Jews: Building Sacred and Connected Community
  1. My husband and I bought a summer cottage on Sebago Lake in Maine shortly after we were married. The view was beautiful and we fell in love with what we thought was a quaint, welcoming area. We were about 1/2 hour from Portland. We quickly learned that a 7-hour trip by car (from Long Island) for a 2 or 3-day weekend with a baby and a dog in the back seat was a bit unrealistic. My husband is an avid fisherman and the lake had seemed like a perfect place to enjoy his hobby. Unfortunately, we also discovered that at that point in time (the 60’s) the lake had been destroyed by DDT and the fishing was not good at all — although I understand it has come back at this point.

    I don’t believe that we ever came into contact with any other Jewish families during the 3 years that we owned the cottage. In fact, a neighbor who we were friendly with, who like us were summer residents but lived in Bangor most of the year, informed us that we were the first Jewish couple they had ever met. I am really happy to know that there is a thriving Jewish community that now exists in Maine. It’s a beautiful state.

    • admin says:

      Hi Sandy,

      Thank you for sharing this. I met a woman who with her husband had raised their family in Portland. They were now living at their lake house in Raymond – on Sebago Lake – full time and still participate actively at Congregation Bet Ha’am in Portland. it is a bit of a drive. But what I have learned is that for most people living outside of major metropolitan areas like New York City, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles, driving 30-45 minutes to synagogue is a part of the whole Jewish experience.

      Thanks again for sharing.

      Best,

      David

  2. admin says:

    Good Morning, David,

    Enjoyed your Blog on Maine Jews! It would have been fun to attend the Conference at Colby, but scheduling wasn’t possible.

    My brother and cousins (residents of Mars Hill) valued the summers at Camp Lown. (I went there starting at the age of 6 and continued for 15 summers!) It was my substitute Religious/Hebrew School. Who knew that years later I would be serving on the NAB of the URJ!

    Thanks for the update.

    Best,

    Susan Adelman Rudolph

    Greenwich CT

    • elaine shapiro zimmerman says:

      You are my cousin but i dont know you. My grandmother was ida shur from island falls andbangor. My name is elaine shapiro.please email me at z18team
      @AOL.COM

  3. admin says:

    Hi Susan,

    I am assuming from your maiden name that you are related to Hiram, Cathy, Toby, Todd, Scott and Karen Adelman. We all went to camp together. They came to Camp Joseph and Naomi after Camp Lown closed. I still remain good friends with Toby and on occasion see or am in touch with Todd and Scott who have been active in their synagogues.

    It is a small world!!

    Best,

    David

    David Katowitz
    President
    Synagogue Strategies Group
    973-477-6424
    david@synagoguestrategies.com
    http://www.synagoguestrategies.com

    Empowering Synagogues to Build Strong Sacred Communities

  4. Toby Adelman says:

    David,
    I loved reading your post. I was hoping to attend the gathering yet escorted my father to his summer home on Meddybemps Lake, instead. Wonderful that you had a good time connecting with everyone.
    I took my father (90) on a drive today, from Mars Hill to Presque Isle, 14 miles north, to take a look at the former Aroostook Hebrew Community Center. It was built in 1951 by my father’s father (also Susan Adelman Rudolph’s grandfather), Hiram Adelman, and the many other strong, independent Jewish families in the area. I remember hearing of a membership of 300+, with families, students at the University of Maine at PI and, of course, all of the servicemen at Loring Airforce Base. The synagogue closed for good a couple of years ago. The Torah my grandfather donated went first to my brother, Scott’s, synagogue in Park City, then to it’s permanent place now at my sister, Karyn’s, Jewish community in Crested Butte, Colorado. The stained glass windows were transported to my brother, Hy’s, synagogue in Bozeman, Montana. I assisted my father in packing every sedur and texts for kosher burial in Bangor.

    I can state with great nostalgia how deeply connected I feel to our Jewish Family worldwide because of my experience growing up as the only Jewish family in Mars Hill for over 100 years. Interestingly, an orthodox Rabbi from Pennsylvania moved his family here to Mars Hill a few years back. Imagine that! My grandfather would have loved that.

    Camp Lown, Camp Joseph, and Camp Naomi, all planted us in the midst of deep friendships that carry on, like ours. The reunions help, as does social media, in keeping us connected.

    I made Aliyah to Israel in 1994, where I worked as a nurse, married, and gave birth to a daughter. I live in the U.S. now, yet love using my dual citizenship to visit Israel every chance I have.

    Last year, Barney Osher, from Biddeford, invited all of the Jews from Maine living in the Bay Area to his home in San Francisco. It was a wonderful opportunity to gather together and share our memories of growing up as Jews in Maine.
    The conservative synagogue that I have belonged to in Silicon Valley for the last eight years just raised $6M dollars to rebuild, a world apart from my humble experiences growing up.
    My comment had turned into a ramble. Thank you for the memories on this beautiful, sunny Maine day,

    • admin says:

      Thank you so much, Toby. For anyone reading this, Toby is one of my camp friends that I have known for most of my life. And the cousin of Susan Adelman Rudolph who also commented on this blog.

      Enjoy Maine and being with you dad.

      Best,

      David

  5. Nancy Levinsky says:

    Intertwined and Random Thoughts about being Jewish in Maine…
    I had the pleasure of going to the Maine Conference for Jewish Life at Colby for the day on Sunday. Like the Adelmans, I am a native Mainer. I, too, went to Camp Naomi in Raymond. David was my counselor for a visit to Israel from camp. I am also a Colby College grad and currently reside in Portland.
    I grew up in Lewiston. We loved hanging out at the JCC in Lewiston. We even had a co-ed basketball team that traveled! We had sleepovers as members of Kadima. There were 10 Jewish kids in my class of 400 at Lewiston High School. My parents who currently reside in Auburn, tell me that they had Jewish sororities in high school and had inter-centers. I met my husband, another native Mainer, at a Jewish Community Center singles gathering in Portland. Oy!
    My mother was a Hebrew School teacher in Old Town, ME while she was a student at U ME Orono. I just finished my 14th year teaching Hebrew school in southern Maine and our daughter who graduated from Connecticut College a few weeks ago also taught Hebrew School in CT.
    Summer camp is where I developed my Jewish identity. I enjoyed being a part of Hillel in college. I remember Passover seders at Colby that drew 80 people.
    Several years ago I went to the CAJE conference in St. Louis and met some people that did not think any Jews were native to Maine. When the interns heard that there really were Jews in Maine they asked if Maine had kosher lobster!

    • admin says:

      Nancy,

      Many thanks for sharing your thoughts about growing up Jewish in Maine. And thanks for the shoutout about camp and its impact on your own Jewish identity.

      Best,

      David

  6. admin says:

    From: Zina Talis
    Date: Wed, Jun 17, 2015 at 10:12 PM
    Subject: Summer Camper from Maine
    To: david@synagoguestrategies.com

    Dave

    I read your article about Jews in Maine and summer camping. I attended Camp Naomi 79-83. My family lived in Lewiston Me and we arrived there as refugees from the former Soviet Union. The JCC helped my family with Camp expenses and I had many wonderful summers. If your father was Lenny & Mom Rose they were the directors at the time. This summer I send my 10 year old off to Bauercrest in Amesbury Ma for two weeks of sports fun!!

    The synagogue you did not mention was Congregation Beth Abraham, still in existence but sadly very few members. When Rabbi Norman Geller passed so did the involvement & the Jewish presence. I enjoy the Camp Joseph Naomi site and the continued posts and shares. I still have my yearbooks from camp, love my memories there.

    All the best
    Zina Tali

  7. admin says:

    Zina,

    Thank you so much for this wonderful email and for remembering my parents.

    I am glad that you still have warm memories of Congregation Beth Abraham and Rabbi Geller. The involvement of the Lewiston-Auburn Jewish community was critical to you and your family and many others to help ease the life changes that you were experiencing in a new country, and to also make you a vital part of the community.

    Many thanks!!

    Best,

    David

  8. Awesome post! I read your blog fairly often and I always learn something.
    I shared this on Facebook and my followers really enjoyed it.
    Keep up the great work! 🙂

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