Jewish organizations in Waterville


Arbeiter Ring (The Workman’s Circle)

The Maine District Organizing Committee of the Workman's Circle (1916), whose members included Barnet Jolovitz of Winslow (upper row, fourth from left); image courtesy of Harris Gleckman
The Maine District Organizing Committee of the Workman's Circle (1916), whose members included Barnet Jolovitz of Winslow (upper row, fourth from left); image courtesy of Harris Gleckman

The only Jewish organization known to exist in Waterville during the earlier part of the 1900s (created around1910-1920) was the “Workman’s Circle” or “Arbeiter Ring,” which was a socialist, Yiddish-language-oriented, all-male American Jewish fraternal organization committed to labor rights. This organization devoted its time to social justice action and Jewish community building within the Maine community as a reaction to the challenges of assimilation and exploitative labor practices faced by Jewish immigrants to Maine at the beginning of the 20th century. Nothing is known to date of their exact activities in the Waterville area. We do know that the Yiddish-language newspaper of the Socialist Labor Party (a group that fought for the same issues as the Workman’s Circle), The Forward circulated within the Waterville Jewish community.

B’nai Brith

According to interviews, there was a B’nai Brith chapter in Waterville, named after Theodore N. Levine, by 1930; the exact date of its founding is unknown. B’nai Brith, a national fraternal organization founded in New York in 1843, served small communities by socializing newly settled immigrants, by connecting them to Jews locally and nationally, and by providing local social service and mutual aid (Moore).

Originally, the Theodore N. Levine B’nai Brith chapter in Waterville was an all-male fraternal organization. The organization was a prominent center of Jewish social life in Waterville during its early years. As the men became more involved in their businesses in Waterville and the Kelsey Street synagogue, however, women began to take on leadership roles within the organization. The Theodore N. Levine B’nai Brith chapter began to appeal more to women than men in Waterville and became an all women’s organization by the late 1930s.

Several Waterville narrators recounted memories of this chapter from their childhood and adulthood. B’nai Brith organized a series of social events such as bridge parties or biannual dances for people in the community, held in members’ homes or community centers. The organization also provided the Waterville chapter with updates on Jewish life nationally and internationally, while the national chapter also asked for specific information about Jewish life in Waterville as well. Like chapters across the country, B’nai Brith provided a secure social network for newly settled Jews in Waterville before the Second World War.


Hadassah was another prominent organization within Waterville in the 1930s. Not much is yet known about the origins of Hadassah in Waterville, but Hadassah in Portland, created in 1915, was the brainchild of the already established “Daughters of Zion” group, so either the organization spread to Waterville or a corresponding DOZ group in Waterville underwent a similar transformation to Hadassah as Portland.

Like B’nai Brith, Hadassah acted both on a local and national level. Most of Hadassah’s early action focused on fundraising their national cause, “a deep commitment to Zionism as a political and moral movement,” through nationally distributed fundraisers like the Jewish National Fund annual money drive (Band, 39). Like B’nai Brith, Hadassah held local social events like dances and bridge parties.

By the early 1940s, it seems that the Waterville leadership of B’nai Brith and Hadassah began to burn out and started to lose interest in keeping the chapters going. Luckily for these two declining groups, “Waterville men imported their wives” following the war which led to a giant influx of young enthusiastic women to Waterville post-WWII (Myrtle Wolman, Phyllis Shiro, and Ida Joyce Levine). Myrtle remembers that it was right when she moved here in 1946 when big things started to happen in terms of making money for the Jewish community: “It was social and it was all intermingled.”


Beth Israel's current building, dedicated in 1958
Beth Israel's current building, dedicated in 1958

After World War II, four major Jewish organizations are present within Waterville. The dedication in 1958 of the new Beth Israel Synagogue building, a more modern version of the older synagogue featuring family seating and a social hall, marked a significant point in the history of Waterville’s Jewish community. With the new building, Beth Israel became a prominent center for Jewish life and ritual worship. As such, the institution became the space where most communal and spiritual events took place. Though the history of Beth Israel has yet to be compiled, it is important to note that during this period the leadership within the synagogue was publicly male-dominated. The other three civic organizations–B’nai Brith, Hadassah, and the Sisterhood–were all women-run organizations. All three were led by the same people, simply because the community was small. As Gordon Wolman observed, “At its height I don’t think we had more than 50 members.”

In addition, this period saw an increased awareness of the events in the Middle East. Jews who had never been believed in Zionism before, like Mr. Morgenthau of Mount Desert Island in Maine, began to accept a unilateral Jewish state as a necessity and the world under the leadership of the UN agreed two years later when in 1947 they passed the resolution to give Jews an all-Jewish state in what was then Palestine. Such a drive toward Zionism caused many more Jews to become involved with Zionist organizations like Hadassah or the Jewish National Fund (Goldstein).

B’nai Brith and Hadassah

The two organizations, though different in name, were more or less identical in their activities post-WWII. As in the first half of the 20th century, B’nai Brith and Hadassah based their activities and events around their two primary focus points: the local and the national. On the one hand, the two committed themselves to raising money for national Jewish causes, such as planting trees in Israel, contributing to the Jewish National Fund, and supporting medical and women’s institutions in Israel. On the other, the two groups fundraised tirelessly for the benefit of the local community by putting on events like rummage sales or art auctions. They also served the community through non-fundraising methods. For example, Myrt Wolman and Phyllis Shiro went around collecting recipes to create a community Jewish cookbook. In addition to their devotion to supporting the Jewish community, B’nai Brith and Hadassah acted as a type of socialization group for Jewish men and women within Waterville, with each organization putting on social events like dances, bridge parties, and holiday parties than in the last half-century. Most social events, until the Beth Israel Synagogue social hall opened in 1958, were small and held within people’s homes or in larger more public spaces. Over their 50-year existence, the two groups served a very similar function within the community, yet still remained separate entities until the late 1960s.

The Sisterhood

At the old Beth Israel Synagogue on Kelsey Street, women began to take on more of a leadership role within synagogue life. Seeing this development, the synagogue’s leadership created a women’s auxiliary group called the Sisterhood, which was officially recognized with the new synagogue in 1958 to give voice to all of the women affiliated with the synagogue. The exact date of the Sisterhood’s creation is currently unknown. As mentioned before, the synagogue maintained an all-male public leadership during the period when the newer Beth Israel Synagogue was built, and the sisterhood provided a women’s leadership representation within the synagogue. It is striking that all of the public roles in the 1958 dedication were played men except one: Mrs. Phillip Rosenthal gave the “Message from the Sisterhood.” This being said, behind the purview of the public eye Beth Israel’s synagogue life was often dominated by women.Indeed, numerous women are listed in the dedication program book as members of the Dedication Committee.

Myrtle Wolman makes this dynamic clear. “The men, they built the synagogue. That was their thing, they were on the building committee. The men did favors when we needed them to, but they didn’t have an active men’s organization” that organized Jewish life.  Gordon Wolman, when asked why there was no active men’s organization, responded saying, “It just fell by the wayside… because of being in business.”

Aside from being an auxiliary women’s group to the synagogue, the Sisterhood also provided major structural support for synagogue life. The Sisterhood raised money for the upkeep of the synagogue’s social functions, such as holiday parties or after-service luncheons, and the Synagogue’s Sunday school. The Sisterhood also promoted extracurricular synagogue functions within people’s homes. One example of this was a study group run out of the synagogue that provided “another form of socialization with an intellectual swing” (Myrtle Wolman). The Sisterhood was an active part of synagogue life until women began to take on more prominent leadership roles within the synagogue during the latter half of the 1960s.

Decline of Jewish Civic Organizations

During the latter half of the 1960s and into the early half of the 1970s, all of the Jewish civic organizations experienced a burn-out of leadership much like they did in the early half of the 1940s. This time, however, there was not a new influx of young Jewish adults to replace the older, worn-out crowd.  In addition, Waterville women began to work full time and didn’t have as much time to devote to the upkeep of these organizations.

The first sign of the disappearance was the consolidation of meetings for B’nai Brith, Hadassah, and the Sisterood during the 1960s. Myrtle Wolman remembers that, “at one point Waterville had three organizations, meaning the same people would go to three meetings a month, and that was ridiculous because of the pressures of work, the family, and other social work. Eventually we formed one meeting for all three, it was just too much, too much going on.” The Sisterhood was not necessary anymore because women became as active as men in the temple leadership (Myrtle Wolman). Additionally, because Jewish women in Waterville had been active in other non-Jewish social welfare organizations, they didn’t have as much time to devote to the Sisterhood, B’nai Brith, and Hadassah as they had before. As such, the three organizations began to dissipate during the early half of the 1970s and have now completely disappeared from Waterville public life. The only Jewish civic organization in existence today is Beth Israel Synagogue itself.

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