November 21, 2002

Maine-stream community


The 20-seat propeller planes that shuttle from Boston to Bangor, Maine, depart with relative frequency, but boarding one of the little puddle-jumpers and heading northward is like flying into a different world.

Located about 250 miles north of Boston in a part of America where there are almost as many moose as people, Bangor, population 32,000, is the last sizeable city between the small metropolitan areas of southern Maine and the mostly empty northern frontier. The airport in Bangor looks more like an empty hotel lobby than a passenger terminal, and the city has none of the skyscrapers that mark the Boston skyline. North of Bangor, in timber country, there aren't even very many paved roads.

Hidden in these parts, far from the clamor of the big cities to the south, is also the last remaining Orthodox community in Maine-and possibly the smallest free-standing Orthodox community in all of North America.

"We're probably the only regular minyan between Boston and London," says Lou Kornreich, president of the lone Orthodox synagogue in town, which still has services three times a day.

That 95-year-old synagogue, Beth Abraham, has seen its membership slowly erode over the last two decades, and after five rocky years in which rabbis came and left and the daily minyan shrank to the minimum of ten, the congregation is hoping it has finally pulled things to secure a future for Orthodoxy in Bangor. That future, however, remains uncertain.

In this northeastern-most Jewish community in the United States, which is closer to Halifax, Nova Scotia, than it is to New York City, Orthodox Judaism is in a fight for its survival.

The Jewish community in Bangor dates back to the 19th century, when many of Maine's small coastal towns held enclaves of traditional Jews who worked as merchants and craftsmen. By the 1970s, nearly of the small, traditional Jewish communities of coastal Maine had disappeared, with the exception of Bangor. Famous today for being the hometown of novelist Stephen King, Bangor also houses the only Orthodox synagogue left in Maine outside of Portland, and it is the only one in the entire state with thrice-daily services.

Things have not been easy for the synagogue in recent years. First, the synagogue lost its long-time rabbi, Henry Isaacs, who left Bangor for Jerusalem after 40 years as the congregation's leader. Then, Isaac's successor lasted only a few months before the synagogue decided he was a poor fit for Beth Abraham. Finally, after another exhaustive search process, the synagogue hired Rabbi Fred Nebel, who seems to be a good fit for the close-knit congregation.

"Rabbi Nebel is a really good match with the community," said Naomi Freedberg, a lifetime member of the synagogue.

In small, far-flung communities like Bangor's, rabbinic stewardship is key to a synagogue's success, and Beth Abraham has suffered as a result of its instability. Nowadays, only about 30 people regularly show up for the Saturday morning service, and the Hebrew school has dwindled to about half a dozen kids.

"Towns up and down the eastern seaboard are disappearing," said Rabbi Isaacs, who now lives in Jerusalem. "Jews always wanted to live in the cities. Being a rabbi in Bangor was a job that you did day by day, and you try to do the best."

Community members say Isaacs deserves the credit for saving traditional Judaism in Bangor during his 40 years as Beth Abraham's rabbi. Isaacs first came to Bangor from Loring Air Force base in northern Maine, where he had served as a military chaplain. At the time, the city had three traditional synagogues, several kosher butcher shops, and a very different kind of feel. The synagogue's membership consisted of cattle-rustlers, gun-toting ruffians, and mild-mannered city people, and on several occasions the rabbi had to stave off fighting in his sanctuary.

"Maine people are a different breed," Isaacs said.

Though the congregation has grown tamer over the years, Bangor is still an anomaly among Orthodox communities. Only six or seven observant families live in the city, but Beth Abraham is somehow still able to assemble a minyan for all three daily prayer services, though sometimes it takes a phone call or two to assemble ten men.

In the wintertime, when the afternoon service must be held during working hours, doctors ditch work to head for shul, sometimes still dressed in their operating-room scrubs. Some members have even skied to the synagogue during heavy snowstorms, which cover Maine in a thick layer of white from November through March. Kornreich, who until recently worked at a law practice, said he used to interrupt important attorney meetings to rush to Beth Abraham, sometimes bringing his clients with him. Now he is a federal judge, and Kornreich says it's easier to make the afternoon service because all he has to do is declare a court recess when it comes time to pray.

"This is a very proactive community," Kornreich said. "The members are extraordinary for what they contribute in terms of time and money."

This small Maine city has a kosher restaurant, even though there are only a handful of families that keep kosher in the city, and the community shares a mikvah, a Jewish funeral home, and four Jewish cemeteries. There is also a Reform temple in town and a Conservative synagogue, which is located across the street from Beth Abraham.

"It's really like a little shtetl here," said David Cantor, rabbi at the Conservative synagogue, Beth Israel. "Bangor is a real gem. It's a place that still holds a lot of these values that you don't see elsewhere. People view participating in the community as important."

The special communal feel that Cantor attributes to Bangor may be common in small towns, but it's a feeling that all too often is a rarity in Jewish communities, says Beth Abraham's president. Kornreich says he's worried not only about the future of the Orthodox community in Bangor, but of small-town Orthodox Judaism all across North America.

"In my travels, I see the obvious, which is a consolidation of the modern Orthodox community in several urban centers in North America," Kornreich said. "I see very few young people willing to make a move out of those areas. Moving into a small town doesn't seem to be on anybody's radar screen."

As a consequence, he said, "Small-town Jewish life throughout North America is doomed unless it's repopulated."

The rabbi who helped the Bangor Orthodox community survive while all the other small-town Jewish communities along the New England coast disappeared said he's worried, too-and for a reason.

"In the small towns, they didn't see hypocrisy when it came to Torah yiddishkeit," Isaacs said. "They were pure. They saw no contradictions, and they took everything very seriously. They were not confused. A lot of people today are very confused. It was clean in the small town."

Isaacs said there was something about Jewish life in Bangor that was idyllic. Living there as an Orthodox Jew, four hours by car from the next closest Orthodox community, in Boston, and with almost no people between you and the end of the continent, makes Bangor seem like an island of tranquility in the midst of the tempest of modern life. Isaacs said the social ills that plague big cities are largely absent from Bangor-a sharp contrast between his old home in Maine and his new home in Jerusalem.

"There are more social ills than I ever saw before," Isaacs observed. "I hear about husbands beating up wives in religious families. I see things, I hear things, I observe things. What are people doing now? What's happening to us?"

By contrast, Isaacs said, "These kids in the small town saw a few people who were observant, and they were fine people. They set an example."

Kornreich says that is why it's important that small-town Jewish life survives, and why he still hopes for a bright future for the community that has kept Beth Abraham going for almost a century.

"Our goal is to attract young people like me who might be able to make a living here as opposed to the big city," Kornreich, who is in his mid-50s, said. "If people are not interested in moving to Israel and they'd like to have small-town life with all the infrastructure, it's an attractive place to raise a family."

Almost all of Beth Abraham's children leave town when they grow up in search of larger, more multi-faceted Jewish communities. Many have ended up in Israel.

Naomi Freedberg is one of the rare exceptions. She was born and raised in Bangor, then moved away when she got married, and returned a few years later with her two children after going through a divorce. As a single Orthodox mother living in the rear apartment of her parents' house in Bangor, dating was almost impossible. Though she occasionally would leave town for singles Shabbatons, her prospects for remarrying while in Maine were weak indeed.

Then a young doctor moved to town, and all of a sudden Naomi was not the only single Orthodox Jew around. It took about two years until she and the neuropsychologist, Bruce Freedberg, figured out that each was interested in the other, and the two finally started dating, much to the delight of nearly everyone in shul. Nine days later, the couple was engaged.

"Everybody in this town had wanted us to get together," Naomi said. "It just took till Hashem decided it was the right time."

The Freedberg's new baby daughter, Chana Bayla, is now one of the youngest congregants at Beth Abraham, and one of less than a dozen children in the congregation. She is one of the few bright spots in a rapidly aging congregation.

The rabbi at Beth Israel, the Conservative synagogue in town, says he believes his congregation and Beth Abraham have survived-and will survive-despite the odds in large part because of the unique nature of Maine society.

"In Maine, it's very hard if you're 'from away,'" Cantor said, employing the term Mainers use to describe those who have made their home in Maine but were born outside the state. "The people who come from away, even if they haven't been involved with the Jewish community before, tend to gravitate to the synagogues because it's usually the only thing that's welcoming them with wide open arms."

Beth Israel has experienced some of the same problems as its Orthodox counterpart. When the synagogue's long-time rabbi left in 1998 after 15 years, his successor failed to make the grade and left after just a year and a half. Then Cantor came on board in early 2001. He plans on sticking around.

The congregation now has about 150 members and still holds daily services, though it doesn't always get the full ten. "Sometimes, if we have nine, we'll send someone over to Beth Abraham to see if one of them will join us, and sometimes if they have nine they'll send someone over here," Cantor said.

Asked why the two synagogues don't simply hold joint services, Cantor explained, "Right now, you've got 18 Jews praying. If you had one minyan, you'd only have nine Jews praying."

Getting a minyan in Bangor is not always such a challenge. The Orthodox community is transformed during the summer months, when vacationers flocking to nearby Acadia National Park, on the Maine coast, help give a boost to the minyan at Beth Abraham. On some weekends, more than 100 people show up for Sabbath-morning services.

In the winter, though, Bangor gets few visitors. Days can pass without the temperature rising above the freezing point, and many of Beth Abraham's members head south to avoid the freeze.

This is not the first time Beth Abraham has been through difficult times. In 1983, the same year the community's Jewish day school closed, a fire ravaged the synagogue, destroying everything except for a few charred Torah scrolls, lecterns, and wooden pews. The synagogue committee decided that very night to rebuild the house of worship, and that same devotion has kept the shul going even as its membership has declined in recent years due to natural attrition.

As membership at the synagogues in Bangor has dwindled, the rabbis in town have increased their inter-synagogue cooperation. Cantor and Nebel work across the street from each other and study Torah together nearly every day. Their synagogues run some joint programs, including a new Sunday-morning Hebrew school for high school students, and the shuls celebrate some of the holidays together.

"You have a lot of interplay between the synagogues," Nebel said. In such a small community-there are a little more than 1,000 Jews in Bangor-inter-synagogue collaboration is crucial, Nebel said.

Despite the challenges, Nebel said he has high hopes for Bangor. "If I wasn't optimistic, I couldn't be in this profession," he said. "There are possibilities for growth. If people realize the possibilities of what we have up here, they'll move here and we'll have growth. If not, not," he said matter-of-factly.

"If you sit here and do nothing, that's exactly what you get," said Jerry Kirstein, a Beth Abraham congregant. "If we got a young rabbi to come up here who's young and energetic, we can do a lot. We have a building, we have people, we have a shul-this place is a diamond in the rough."

Teaching the Children

Jewish day schools are a rarity in remote enclaves like Bangor, which is partly why small-town Jewish communities generally don't survive more than a generation or two before disappearing into the melting pot of America.

Perhaps the most extraordinary achievement of the small Jewish community in Bangor was the establishment of a day school in the early 1960s, which community members say is the main reason Orthodox Judaism still exists in Maine. The school has since closed-the community ran out of children to enroll-but its effects are still readily apparent in Bangor.

"The day school gave the Orthodox community at least another 15 to 20 years," said Rabbi Henry Isaacs, who started the school in 1963 when it came time to give his own children a Jewish education. "We were the smallest community in North America to have a day school, and my thought was that by showing people what Orthodoxy was they would come to appreciate it."

Though all the school's Jewish educators were Orthodox, almost all the students came from non-Orthodox homes. Isaacs served as the principal, and a few parents and a pair of out-of-town Jewish educators taught Jewish studies classes. In its heyday, the school had 80 students in kindergarten through the eighth grade.

"The day school had a big influence on us," said long-time Beth Abraham member Sandy Padolsky, a Maine native. His experience is typical of several of the families that today comprise the core of the minyan at the city's Orthodox synagogue. "When the day school came along, I was still working on the Sabbath," he said. "My kids would ask me why I worked on Saturday and I would make some smart remark. We had a rabbi [at the school] who was like a pied piper. Judaism just got to be contagious. We learned from them and it kind of rubbed off on us the whole period our kids were in school."

Eventually, the Padolskys started observing the Sabbath themselves, and even after their kids left home to attend a Jewish high school in Providence, Rhode Island, they stuck with it. "We just got into the habit," said Padolsky of his religious observance. "It was a gradual process, and the more I went to shul the more I learned about these things."

Most of the day school's graduates did not become Orthodox, but the school was able to generate enough interest in Jewish tradition to breathe new life into Jewish religious life in Bangor, and the school's reputation quickly spread to other Orthodox communities up and down the East Coast.

"Other rabbis were amazed that kids from Bangor, Maine, knew anything," Beth Abraham member Jerry Kirstein said. "The day school graduates could hold their own with other kids from yeshivas in New York and Boston."

A few of the school's graduates went on to become rabbis, and some moved to Israel. But the most important effect of the day school was that it helped sustain traditional Jewish life in the small city. "The day school kept the shul going," Kirstein said. "There was a purpose and people stayed with it."

In some ways, the day school's success was it's own undoing. "It was such a success that everyone became religious and left town," said Rabbi Fred Nebel, spiritual steward of Beth Abraham.

The school closed its doors in 1983, when only three students remained, and today the only formal Jewish education in town is an afternoon Hebrew school that meets for a few hours a week and a Sunday-morning program for high school students.

"The Hebrew school is a little red schoolhouse approach, depending on skill level as opposed to formal grade level," said Beth Abraham President Lou Kornreich, who educated his three children in Bangor before sending them to a Jewish day school in Boston when they reached high school age. "Rather than quantity we emphasize quality."

Now, Kornreich said, many of the families in Bangor are home schooling their children in lieu of sending them to public school. There aren't enough kids around to restart the day school.

But Beth Abraham's congregants aren't ready to give up just yet. When Rabbi Nebel moved to town a little over a year ago, he doubled the number of days the Hebrew school met, and he's already set up a little Jewish pre-school for his own children.

His enthusiasm has some congregants murmuring about the future.

"There is a bit of an interest, but at this point it's still in the thought stage," said one mother cautiously. "We'll see."