As Bath’s Beth Israel synagogue prepares to celebrate its centennial, the congregation is reflecting on how far the Jewish community in Maine has come in the past 100 years.

Beth Israel synagogue in Bath. Photo courtesy of Marilyn Weinberg.

On Sunday, the Beth Israel community will reenact its opening by marching with the Torahs from the intersection of Centre and Washington streets to the synagogue. The celebration is open to the public.

Jews have been living in Maine for 200 years, according to the Maine Jewish History Museum in Portland.  The first Jewish family arrived in Bath in 1886. By the early 1900s, the city’s Jewish population grew to include a wave of settlers, many of whom came to work as peddlers.

The Beth Israel synagogue was founded on Jan. 29, 1922, by eastern European immigrants, most of whom had fled persecution.

“They were so proud to be Americans – they carried an American flag in their parade,” said Marilyn Weinberg, a member of the Beth Israel congregation. “There was anti-Semitism out there, but they were welcomed by the Bath community.”

Though Jews in Bath were generally accepted by the community, life for Jews in Maine and across the nation was far from perfect, said David Freidenreich, chairperson of the Jewish studies department at Colby College and associate director of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life.

Advertisement

About 100 years ago, the U.S. restricted immigration, which “ transformed the American-Jewish landscape,” said Freidenreich.

“The Jews who founded Beth Israel were all immigrants, and suddenly, there were no immigrants joining them,” Freidenreich said. “Those immigrants proceeded to Americanize and integrate into the community and benefit from previous generations of Jewish immigrants, but there were no later generations of immigrants coming to carry on that tradition. American-Jewish life, including that in Maine, was shaped by that absence.”

Jews in Maine faced anti-Semitism locally for decades, Freidenreich said. Hotels and country clubs openly stated they would not serve Jews, among other groups, until a 1969 bill introduce by then-state Sen. Peter Mills to deny liquor licenses to private organizations that discriminated on the basis of race or religion passed the Legislature.

By the 1970s, Freidenreich said, anti-Semitism was still present but no longer “advertised.”

“There are still individuals that hold anti-Semitic ideals and Jews still experience discrimination, but they don’t experience it in the way they did 50 or 100 years ago,” said Freidenreich. “Part of that is because Jews have Americanized. They’re now part of the mainstream rather than seen as outsiders.”

When Weinberg moved to Bath in the 1970s and joined the Beth Israel congregation, she said the community had about 50 members and no rabbi. Though small, she said the congregation was “an older, cohesive group.”

Advertisement

Weinberg helped start a Hebrew school at the synagogue in the 1980s, which helped attract young families and boost the synagogue’s membership.

Today, Weinberg said, the congregation has about 100 members — individuals and families — scattered around the Midcoast from Yarmouth to Damariscotta.

Freidenreich said he believes the Jewish community in Maine is continuing to grow, though precise numbers are unknown.

“They’re not moving because they’re Jewish, but because they find Maine attractive like many people find Maine attractive,” said Freidenreich. “Jewish life in Maine today is vibrant, and we see that in Bath. The Beth Israel synagogue is thriving in ways that it often wasn’t during it’s 100-year history.”

Beth Israel is now one of 15 synagogues in the state, though the state used to have double that, according to the Jewish History Museum.

Though the congregation is larger and accepted by the Bath community, Weinberg said the new challenge the congregation is facing is the fear of anti-Semitic acts — such as the recent hostage standoff at a Houston synagogue — could happen here.

Advertisement

“The challenge now, more than ever, is we’re now part of a wider information sharing that didn’t exist even 10 years ago,” said Weinberg. “We now have to deal with the fact that there’s information out there on the web that’s inflammatory and inaccurate, but some people believe it.”

Weinberg said this fear surfaced after a man shouting anti-Semitic slurs opened fire inside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg in 2018. Eleven people were killed and four police officers were wounded.

Though the Bath synagogue has never received threats, security cameras were installed inside. The synagogue also has a security committee that has considered conducting training similar to active shooter drills in school. The synagogue also hires security for larger holiday events that are open to the public, Weinberg said.

Unfortunately, hate crimes committed against Jews elsewhere have hindered Beth Israel’s willingness to welcome strangers to its services, Weinberg said.

“One of the tenants of Judaism is to welcome the stranger, but now we’re wondering how to do this,” said Weinberg. “We could have someone come in that’s dangerous to us. It’s a feeling of fear that’s so real because it has happened. There’s tension we have to deal with that we never had to deal with before.”

Each time an anti-Semitic crime happens “feels like a wound opening up again” for the people of Beth Israel,” Weinberg said.

Advertisement

“The hard part is it happens often enough that some people grow numb to it,” said Weinberg. “It doesn’t keep people away from services, but we have to be more aware of people and visitors.”

Still, Freidenreich said the Jewish community in Maine should celebrate how far the state has come in accepting Jews, and their successful integration into the larger Maine population. This is exemplified by the children of mixed families within Beth Israel’s Hebrew school.

“One hundred years ago, that would not have happened,” he said. “That is a reflection of how Jews are integrated into society. The fact that Jews and non-Jews feel comfortable having a family together and treating one another as equal partners – that’s a huge and very positive shift.”

The 100th-anniversary celebration will take place at Beth Israel Sunday, Jan. 30, from 1-2 p.m. Visit bethisraelbath.org for more information.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.