In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Maine Memory Network

The Changing Landscape of Jewish Organizations

This slideshow contains 8 items
Ahawas Achim record book cover, Bangor, 1853

Ahawas Achim record book cover, Bangor, 1853

Item 59260 info
Bangor Public Library

Thirteen men from Bangor's small German-Jewish community came together to form Maine's first synagogue, Ahawas Achim ("Brotherly Love").

Gathering to meet the religious needs of members, their first action was the purchase of land for a cemetery in July 1849.

In March 1850 Ahawas Achim rented rooms to house its religious services. Although Ahawas Achim disbanded in 1856 when its congregants left Bangor to find work elsewhere, the synagogue was reestablished by a second group of German-Jewish immigrants in 1874 when they retrieved the first Ahawas Achim's important religious objects, such as the Sefer Torah (Torah scroll), from the synagogue in Boston where they were being kept.

Congregants from the second Ahawas Achim integrated quickly into the population of Bangor. This group intermarried at such a high rate that the congregation again disbanded after only a few years.

While Bangor's first synagogues lasted only a few years, they laid the groundwork for a number of long-lasting synagogues that followed.

Beth Israel, Maine's first permanent congregation, was established in Bangor during the 1880s. By 1888 this congregation had organized more fully and again retrieved Ahawas Achim's Sefer Torah from the synagogue holding it in Boston.

Beth Israel constructed a synagogue to hold services in 1897, but by then members of the congregation had already begun the shift characteristic to American Judaism toward more home-based tradition, and many members were already performing some rituals in their homes.

Temple services were still important, but as the Jewish community of Bangor shows, they were just one option Jews had to maintain their culture in the late 19th century.

Portland Lodge 218 IOBB minutes, 1874

Portland Lodge 218 IOBB minutes, 1874

Item 56938 info
Maine Historical Society

B'nai B'rith formed nationwide as a secular Jewish cultural fraternal organization in 1843. Its earliest lodges, based in New York City, organized mutual aid programs to encourage peoplehood and Jewish unity.

The Portland area lodge, founded in 1874, included members from all over Maine, including Saco, Lewiston, Waterville and Bangor. This B'nai B'rith lodge provided valuable social services to members of the community, offering monetary support both to lodge members who could not work and to local Jewish widows.

Sometimes secular and religious groups gather to perform the same tasks. One of the Portland lodge's first actions was the purchase of land Cape Elizabeth in 1875, providing the first Jewish cemetery in southern Maine.

Separate Jewish cemetery space, in which members could be buried according to Jewish rites, was of utmost importance to B'nai B'rith just as it was important to members of Ahavas Achim before them.

Secular or religious, acquisition of cemetery space took precedence in Jewish organizations in Maine in the 19th century.

The Waterville area chapter of B'nai B'rith was founded about 1930. Though created as a fraternal organization, the organization's membership in Waterville consisted entirely of women by the late 1930s.

The then all-women's lodge organized local social events and maintained a relationship with larger Jewish communities outside of Waterville through B'nai B'rith.

Secular Jewish organizations like B'nai B'rith, as well as synagogues, worked to meet the needs of Jewish community members and members and foster a sense of connection to Jews across the country and around the world.

Israel bonds fund-raising dinner, Bangor, ca. 1970

Israel bonds fund-raising dinner, Bangor, ca. 1970

Item 56734 info
Bangor Public Library

Bangor has a long history of Zionist activity. Through the 1920s and 1930s, the Jewish community there hosted a parade of Zionist spokesmen raising money for Jewish settlements in Palestine.

Myer Minsky, a Bangor resident, drove around Aroostook County collecting money from potato farmers; Bessie Motiuk raised $1500 a year in $10 and $15 donations from Jews in Bangor. Bangor's Jewish community celebrated the creation of Israel in 1948.

As American Jewish philanthropy became more focused on causes within Israel in the 1960s, organizations like the United Jewish Appeal and the Jewish National Fund grew in Jewish communities nationwide.

Supporting Israel became very important for American ideological Zionists who now had a state in part because of their efforts earlier in the 20th century.

Confirmation, Shaarey Tphiloh, Portland, 1938

Confirmation, Shaarey Tphiloh, Portland, 1938

Item 52662 info
Portland Public Library

In the early 20th century, Orthodox synagogues around the country were facing increased competition for membership with Conservative synagogues. At the fore of this conflict was women's participation.

While women had traditionally sat in the balcony, remaining separate from men in the synagogue, Conservative Judaism developed a mixed seating plan, where women and men could sit together.

By the interwar years many Orthodox synagogues followed suit according to changing American ideals. The leadership of Shaarey Tphiloh in Portland resisted this change because they believed it violated halakhah, Jewish law.

Instead, they increased women's participation in other ways, developing side-by-side seating where women and men sat on the same level, but had a partition between them.

In this picture young girls studying in preparation for their confirmation stand on the bimah, the raised platform in front of the synagogue's sanctuary. The confirmation of girls into Jewish adulthood developed as an alternative to the boys' Bar Mitzvah, or coming of age ceremony, in the 20th century.

While the liberal denominations adopted the full Bat Mitzvah for girls, more traditional congregations continued with the confirmation as the initiation process for girls.

Shaarey Tphiloh, while maintaining what it saw as necessary differences between participation of men and women in Judaism, integrated women from Shaarey Tphiloh's sisterhood group into the synagogue leadership and, beginning in 1959, included women on the Board of Directors.

Cover of 'Salt' magazine, Portland, 1991

Cover of 'Salt' magazine, Portland, 1991

Item 57277 info
Maine Historical Society

"For now they keep coming, day after day, helping each other to make minyan.

"'Who knows [why].' Dean says. 'Habit probably.'
Because 'when you grow up that way it's not difficult.'
Because 'my father was one of the founders here.'
'Because they needed me.'

"Because, as Maurice says, 'I couldn't divorce myself of [it]. It's part of me, you know.' He pauses, then adds, 'It's like the appendix. It's a vestigial remain, but it's a part of the whole, and I feel that without it, I'd be lost.'"(Salt magazine #41 1991)

Certain Jewish prayers require the presence of 10 people, a minyan or prayer quorum. Like smaller congregations everywhere, Etz Chaim, the only synagogue remaining in Portland's original Jewish neighborhood, struggles to maintain religious traditions in an area that once supported four congregations.

As most of Portland's Jews moved away from Munjoy Hill, this congregation remained in the city's East End. Originally an Orthodox synagogue, Etz Chaim did not count always women in the minyan. Now it does.

Etz Chaim continues to hold regular services, and usually has enough people to make a minyan.

Bet Haam Torah dedication, South Portland, 2009

Bet Haam Torah dedication, South Portland, 2009

Item 52663 info
Maine Historical Society

The Sefer Torah or Torah scroll comprises the Five Books of Moses. The process of writing the Torah is laborious, meticulous work performed by a scribe using methods that have remained largely the same for over a thousand years. Torah scrolls are written by hand, on calfskin parchment, using quill and ink.

Recently, however, some aspects of this tradition have changed. While women would not have participated in the Torah dedication in the past, female congregants were included in this process when Bet Ha'am in South Portland commissioned a scribe to write a new Torah for the synagogue. The Torah was dedicated in 2009.

In this Reform congregation, women are involved in all aspects of the synagogue; at the time of this dedication, a woman also served as the rabbi.

Am Chofshi gay pride, Portland, 1990

Am Chofshi gay pride, Portland, 1990

Item 52664 info
Colby College Special Collections

After an advertisement calling for an alternative Jewish community was placed in the weekly newspaper The Maine Times, respondents gathered for a meeting at the Jewish Community Association in Portland.

Since almost all the people attending this meeting were gay or lesbian, they decided to organize as Maine's Jewish gay and lesbian group. Settling on the name Am Chofshi, or "a free people," because an Israeli visitor suggested the linguistic connection between chofesh (time of freedom or vacation) and Maine's tourism slogan Vacationland, the group gathered for social meetings a few times each year.

Food was always important to Am Chofshi's membership, and holiday observance became an important element of their organization as they provided an alternative group for celebration of Hanukkah, Passover and Purim.

They also marched in the Portland Gay Pride Parade, as pictured, and sponsored the oneg at the Reform synagogue Bet Ha'am for the Kedoshim service, whose the Torah portion from Leviticus refers to man laying with man as "abomination," making this service the annual gay service.

By 1998 when Am Chofshi disbanded, most members who were interested in Judaism had joined Bet Ha'am, which had been openly gay and lesbian friendly for years.
Am Chofshi provided a place for alternative Jewish traditions and alternative Jewish identities.

Even when the group was celebrating holidays, they remained independent from Judaism as religion, allowing members to hold on to familial and group traditions in a way that was culturally, not religiously, based.

Maine Jewish Film Festival Poster, 2011

Maine Jewish Film Festival Poster, 2011

Item 56910 info
Colby College Special Collections

In 1998 the first Maine Jewish Film Festival was held in the basement of Congregation Bet Ha'am in Portland, where organizers screened six movies on a television screen.

It has since grown in size and prestige, screening over 250 films over the years and bringing artists from all over the world to Portland annually.

Moving into the Nickelodeon Theater in downtown Portland, the festival has become a popular, non-religious event to showcase Jewish culture.

Today, these social and cultural events are significant markers of Jewish cultural identity in Maine.

This slideshow contains 8 items