Rabbi Harry Sky was a longtime leader in the Jewish community and the inspiration behind the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at USM. Press Herald file photo

PORTLAND — Rabbi Harry Sky’s legacy of all-inclusive worship and lifelong learning will continue to ripple through the Portland community for many years to come, his friends and colleagues say.

Sky, a longtime leader in the Portland Jewish community, died Dec. 14 in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he had been living for the last decade. He was 95.

“Anyone who knew Rabbi Sky, he had an impact on their lives and definitely in a positive way,” said Nancy Davidson, curator at the Maine Jewish Museum.

She knew Sky for more than 50 years, dating back to the early 1960s when she took over the art show at Temple Beth El, the Portland synagogue Sky led for more than 25 years.

Rabbi Harry Sky Press Herald file photo

His loss is being felt all over the community, including at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute on the University of Southern Maine campus, an organization Sky and Terry Foster started in the mid-1990s to offer liberal arts courses to individuals 50 and older.

“One of his biggest legacies is his passion for lifelong learning,” said Osher Lifelong Learning Institute Director Donna Anderson.

In January 1997, the Portland center became the first of the now more than 120 Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes nationwide. The Portland center served 50 students once a week when it first started and now has 2,000 students attending courses Monday through Friday.

“Harry’s energy and inspiration has really had an impact on thousands of learners here and all across the country. That is not a bad legacy to have,” Anderson said.

One of those learners locally is Pat Reef, who took a global spirituality course with Sky and was inspired to become an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute instructor herself.

“I give him the credit for getting me, and people like me, interested in keeping on learning,” said Reef,  a retired English teacher at Catherine McAuley High School.

“I think the rabbi was a visionary beyond his time,”  she said.

Gary Berenson, rabbi of Etz Chaim Synagogue on Congress Street, called Sky “an intellectual giant.”

“He may be one of the smartest men I ever met,” said Berenson, who was a child when he first met Sky and later preached alongside him at Etz Chaim. “He had an intellectual curiosity that was unmatched. He was always up for the next challenge.”

Berenson said Sky was the force behind Jews without Borders, a group that aimed at bringing all sectors of the Jewish faith together.

“His idea was since Judaism is very segmented with this denomination or that denomination, let’s not have borders. A Jew is a Jew, let’s welcome everyone who wants to come,” Berenson said.

Sky was ordained as a rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1952, serving congregations in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Alexandria, Virginia, Houston, Texas, and Indianapolis, Indiana, before becoming rabbi at Temple Beth El on Deering Avenue in Portland in 1961.

Rabbi Harry Sky, left, was one of several people from Maine who participated in the 1963 March on Washington. NAACP, Portland, Maine chapter

It was at Temple Beth El that Sky began making his mark on human and civil rights issues. According to his obituary, Sky “had a passion for social justice and progressive change, marching with civil rights leaders in the 1960s to advance equal rights for the African American community and campaigning against the Vietnam War.”

Sky remained as rabbi at Temple Beth El for more than 25 years.

“In his later years, after he retired from Temple Beth El, I asked him to come to my synagogue to help re-establish it. It is the oldest synagogue in the city … but was having a hard time attracting new members,” Berenson said. “Harry had a reach and had people follow him, so I thought he could help.”

Sky served six years at the synagogue as its scholar in residence and help to lead worship during the high holy days. Prior to moving to North Carolina, Sky took part in helping to create the Maine Jewish Museum, which is located at Etz Chaim.

Berenson said Sky was a mentor to him and encouraged him to be a rabbi, which he did in 2014 at 62, after leading Etz Chaim as its lay leader for years.

“He challenged people to be the best they could be. There should be no barriers. Be what you want to be and don’t let people tell you you can’t do it,” Berenson said.

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