The 1920s and 1930s were tumultuous decades in American and in Maine Jewish history. By the late 1930s, American Jewry was a community that faced severe economic depression, unprecedented social anti-Semitism, and deep political impotence.

Portland was known as the “Jerusalem of the North,” a designation that did not refer to an atmosphere of learning and study, but rather to a traditional piety that allowed no Judaism to flourish except an orthodoxy dominated by East European Jews.

But Orthodox Judaism’s domination was not the only issue that concerned Portland Jews. Maine’s native Anglo-Saxon Protestant population, Portland included, would allow little or no challenges to its centuries-long social, political and religious dominance.

Portland’s Jews saw a clear example of that dominance in 1923. In that year the established Protestant community had had enough of a sizeable Jewish and Catholic representation on the Portland City Council, especially from the heavily Jewish Third Ward.

In September 1923, Portland voters threw out the old form of government and voted in a new council-manager government made up entirely of Protestants.

For the next several decades, Maine’s largest Jewish community had little input into the struggles that defined the politics of political power. The Jewish focus was on the development of economic status and the building of communal organizations that were especially designed to increase social activities for Jewish adults and young people increasingly isolated from their non-Jewish neighbors and, because of infighting between Orthodox congregations, themselves.


To make something positive out of an exclusion from non-Jewish society in Portland, the Jewish community sought to create separate but equal facilities for its members. The community had owned a building on Wilmot Street since 1923, in which organizations such as the Young Women’s Hebrew Association (YWHA), founded in 1907, and the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA), founded in 1905, sought to provide a meeting place for Portland’s second-generation American-born Jews.

By the late 1930s, these organizations no longer held the same appeal as they had a decade earlier. Portland’s Jewish leadership, as well as many parents, was concerned that the embrace of American culture by the younger generations would lead to a loss of Jewish identity.

The answer, it seemed, was to build a bigger and better environment in which young Jewish men and women could feel Jewish but in a setting that allowed for physical recreation, social relationships and cultural activities.

On November 1, 1937, Louis Bernstein, a prominent member of Portland’s Jewish community and a future judge, held a meeting at his home for the Wilmot Street center’s board of directors. The meeting was followed by a meeting of the entire Jewish community to approve the idea of a new Jewish Community Center building.

Within weeks, a structure that had housed the former Pythian Temple became the new home of the Portland Jewish Community Center. Purchased for $17,500, the building at 341 Cumberland Ave., was an ideal location: within easy walking distance of numerous Jewish neighborhoods, and a major improvement on Wilmot Street: five floors containing a gymnasium, a bowling alley, a theater, a 300-seat auditorium and numerous meeting rooms.

The new JCC was from its very founding a secular Jewish institution. It was, in many ways, an alternative to the synagogue, a place where Jews could socialize without wearing a label. One was simply Jewish and not an Orthodox Jew, or if the other movements in American Judaism had existed in Portland, a Conservative or Reform Jew.


The uniqueness of such a communal institution was distinctly American and a departure from the traditional form of Jewish religious and communal life. That uniqueness was not lost on Portland’s Jews, especially not on Norman I. Godfrey, the legendary first executive director of the JCC. Godfrey spoke at the dedication dinner of the new JCC in November 1938. His speech focused on the twin aspects of Jewish identity and a commitment to democracy and Americanism:

“Consecrated to the noble purpose of perpetuating Jewish life upon the highest possible plane, in consonance with the traditions of the founding fathers of our great democracy, the Jewish Community Center enters now upon its course of service devoted to the enrichment of the individual personality and the enhancement of American Jewry.”

For Portland Jewry, this was an historic moment.. Norman Godfrey’s dream, as recounted by his wife, a dream “to bring … the very best of Jewish life and combine it with the American life and the American way in this community,” would be realized, even though his early death in 1947 deprived Godfrey of seeing its full implementation.

But while Godfrey lived, and for more than 40 years of its existence until it was sold in 1979, the Jewish Community Center building on Cumberland Avenue was a unique experience for thousands of Portland Jews.

With classes and presentations in music, drama, dancing, art and crafts, an Institute of Jewish Studies as part of its focus on education; with classes in “weight normalizing and slenderizing,” and facilities that offered a full gymnasium, handball courts, exercise rooms, bowling alleys, a billiard and golf driving net, the JCC was truly separate but equal to the best facilities offered by the non-Jewish community.

By the early 1970s, most of Portland and Maine’s social barriers for Jews had largely, but not entirely, fallen. Jews were not only able to join once-exclusive and discriminatory country and social clubs, but they now provided important leadership roles for numerous civic and philanthropic organizations in the greater community.


Additionally, Portland’s Jewish community had moved from its downtown locations to a more suburban existence and the Cumberland Avenue facility began to demand repairs to its aging structure, demands beyond the means of the community.

Most interestingly, the growth of Conservative Judaism in Portland through its representative institution, Temple Beth El, meant that the synagogue was now able to offer numerous social as well as religious activities for younger Jews. Beth El began to replace the JCC as the focus of a large portion of the community’s Jewish identity, reversing a trend of previous decades.

For Portland’s Jewish community, the tension that had once existed between being a Jew and being an American could now be lessened and translated into an understanding that being a better Jew was important in becoming a better American.

Abraham J. Peck is research professor of history at the University of Southern Maine and the co-author (with Jean M. Peck) of “Maine’s Jewish Heritage” (2007).

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