Nearly two years after a fire forced the Maine Jewish Museum to close, repair and rebuild, the Portland museum is aiming to build new connections to the community and new audiences.

And this week, the museum’s staff and board are hoping to do that through song.

The Maine premiere of Russian composer Grigory Frid’s opera “The Diary of Anne Frank” will be held at the Maine Jewish Museum, with performances Thursday and Saturday. It’s part of the museum’s effort to increase collaboration with other Maine cultural groups and attract a wider audience to the museum beyond members of the Jewish community.

It’s also the first major event to take place at the museum, which is housed in the Etz Chaim Synagogue on Congress Street in the city’s East End, under new executive director Dawn LaRochelle, the museum’s first full-time executive director in about two years. It’s also the first production put on by Opera in the Pines, a Maine-based alternative opera company.

Dawn LaRochelle, executive director of the Maine Jewish Museum, started her job in April. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“When cultural organizations collaborate instead of compete, they can have an outsized impact. So we’d definitely like to do more of this,” said LaRochelle, who began her job in April. “Hosting Opera in the Pines’ inaugural production dovetails beautifully with what we’d like to be doing.”

The opera, written in 1968, tells the story of Anne Frank, the Jewish teen who, with her family, hid from Nazis in a concealed apartment in Amsterdam during World War II. They were captured some two years later, and Anne died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945, at the age of 16. The diary she kept during her family’s years in hiding was published as book and became the basis for a film and this opera.


Soprano Rachel Policar will sing the opera “The Diary of Anne Frank” at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland. Photo courtesy of Rachel Policar

The one-person opera will be performed in the synagogue’s main worship space by New York-based soprano Rachel Policar, accompanied by Maine pianist Tina Davis. The 19 scenes that Policar will sing as Frank are each from a chapter in Frank’s diary, beginning with when she gets the diary for her birthday.

Though the story is ultimately tragic, Policar said that Frank had moments of optimism in her writing, and that’s reflected in the songs, which are sung in English. The performance is about 90 minutes without intermission.

“We forget she was a 15-year-old girl, and she was able to find hope and optimism despite horrific circumstances,” said Policar, who is Jewish. “She says (in one song) that if she survives, she’ll give herself over to serving the world. She still believes, after all she’s been through, that the world is good.”

The event will begin with a talk on Frank’s life and diary by Abraham Peck, founding director of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Studies program at the University of Maine at Augusta.

The opera’s Maine debut came about because Opera in the Pines was looking for a fairly small show for its first production, something that could be done relatively safely in a small space and with a small cast, said Lauren Yokabaskas, one of the Opera in the Pines founders.

The company was formed last year by Yokabaskas and two other Maine-raised singers – Aaren Rivard and Sable Strout – who had worked around the country but found themselves back in Maine after the pandemic began.


“Everything shut down, and we were all challenged to find some way to pursue music,” said Yokabaskas, who grew up in Cape Elizabeth.

Because of the opera’s story, Yokabaskas said, Opera in the Pines approached the Maine Jewish Museum about collaborating. She said the synagogue’s acoustics, aided by a curved ceiling, were appealing as well.

“What more perfect place to host an opera about Anne Frank, a Jewish woman whose voice changed the world, than a museum celebrating Jewish immigrants,” said LaRochelle.

The Maine Jewish Museum at 267 Congress St., Portland is housed in the Etz Chaim Synagogue building. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Maine Jewish Museum was founded in 2006 with the goal of celebrating and honoring Maine’s Jewish immigrants. But it was also started as a way to help revitalize the Etz Chaim Synagogue, which at the time had a dwindling congregation and a building that was well over 130 years old and in dire need of repair.

A separate foundation created for the museum could accept donations from groups restricted from making religious donations, said Rabbi Gary Berenson, who was the museum’s first executive director. Because the museum was leasing space from the synagogue, its foundation then could use its money to make repairs, Berenson said.

“We only had 20 to 25 families at the time, and we just couldn’t fund the repairs through the synagogue alone,” said Berenson. “Creating the museum allowed us to focus attention on the immigration of Jews to Maine and Portland, how they made a living, how they worshiped and assimilated.”


Over the years, the museum expanded to include rotating art exhibits by Jewish-connected artists, in a large space off the hallway of the synagogue. A recent exhibit featured book art (works that include the structural properties of a book) about women from the Bible. Other exhibits, like the Maine Jewish Hall of Fame, photos and other historical texts are displayed throughout the synagogue building, including in the upper balcony area. The museum is open noon to 4 p.m. Sunday through Friday and is free to the public, but donations are welcome.

A fire broke out at the synagogue and museum on May 20, 2020, just as crews were finishing some brickwork as part the decade-long restoration of the building. A new air-conditioning unit had been installed the day before. The flames of the fire, which was attributed to faulty wiring behind the Torah ark on the second-floor sanctuary, caused minimal damage, but water damage was extensive.

When the synagogue building, including the museum, reopened in February of 2021, Berenson estimated that it had sustained between $1.25 million and $1.5 million in damage. Insurance and a fire-restoration fundraising campaign will cover nearly all the costs, he said.

Jessyca M. Broekman’s series “Fans of Acquiescence” in the exhibit gallery at the Maine Jewish Museum. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Now that the building has been restored, Berenson said board members want to find ways to bring more people into it. The museum has been hosting concerts by the DaPonte String Quartet and some other classical groups, but the hope is that performances, like this upcoming opera, will happen more regularly.

“Partnerships with programmers in the community are the best way to develop a sustainable program for the museum,” said Katie Getchell, vice president of the museum’s board and chair of the programming committee.

Another event that board members and staff hope expand awareness of the museum is a touring project called Violins of Hope. Concerts are organized using instruments from a collection of violins, violas and cellos that belonged to Jews before or during the Holocaust and now belong to violin makers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein, who work in Israel and Turkey. The violins will be displayed at the museum and played by local musicians in a concert in the fall. Details and the location of performances are still being worked out, Getchell said.


To carry out the museum’s vision of expanded programming and collaborations, board members decided they needed a full-time executive director. The last full-time director, Gary A. Barron, was hired in 2018 and served about two years before leaving, and then the museum was closed for nearly a year. Late last year, after a search, the board announced it hired LaRochelle.

LaRochelle, 53, grew up in the suburbs of New York City and graduated from Harvard Law School. She ran her own restaurant, taught English and was most recently program manager at the Center for Women & Enterprise, which has locations all over New England.

LaRochelle said she is excited by the museum’s potential and hopes it can become “an established pillar of the Maine community.”

“I think it can become a place that’s not only celebrating and honoring the Maine Jewish immigrant experience, but looking at the larger social justice picture and underserved communities,” said LaRochelle. “We can do that by building partnership and working on programs that foster understanding.”

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