Seeking Sanctuary: The History of Old Town’s Temple Israel
by Melissa Ladenheim, Honors College, University of Maine (April 2011)
The story of Old Town,’s Temple Israel is a story of faith: faith in God, faith in family and community, and faith in the future. Today, I will lay out the historical time line leading to the construction of Temple Israel. The research is in its early stages and given the time constraints here, I will only be able to allude in passing to some of the tensions at play within the congregation and the larger community. Overviews allow for the big picture, but the real story is often far more complicated and nuanced.
First, a bit of history. Eastern-European Jews began settling in Old Town, Maine in the late 19th century. They began gathering formally for services as early as 1913. In 1914, high holiday services were held in Edwin Cutler’s store and in 1915, a building had been purchased for use as a synagogue.
The building, located just off Main Street in Old Town, was purchased by five Jewish merchants including Edwin and Israel Cutler, Hyman Lait, Barney Ginsberg, and Samuel Gordon. These men along with nine others formed a permanent organization named B’nai Israel. Rev. David Hornstein was hired in 1916 as the rabbi and Hebrew school teacher. Israel Cutler was elected president of the synagogue in 1919, a post he held until 1953!
There is little recorded on the B’nai Israel congregation after 1922. Pictured here, it is now a private home. There are, however, personal memories of services. 84 year old David Cutler, in whose grandfather’s store the first High Holy days services were held, recently shared his memories:
The men sat separate from the women. The women did nothing but talk. And there were windows between the two, and the women would open the windows, and the men would close the windows…Everything was in Hebrew and I suspect very few of the people knew what was going on at any time or could understand what was going on. This was all rote and they all enjoyed it.
For these first generation immigrants and their children, the language of discourse would likely have been Yiddish. That they didn’t converse in, or even necessarily comprehend Hebrew, was not an impediment. Prayer transcended linguistic barriers. In the end, it was not so necessary that they understand, only that God did.
Discussions about building a new synagogue appear in the congregation’s historical records starting in 1945, although one could assume the idea had been contemplated earlier. Fueled by a strong mercantile and manufacturing economy in Old Town and what appeared to be a promising future, local Jewish families desired a new building which would better serve their needs. They were not alone in this ambition. As Lee Shai Weissbach writes, “Nothing better symbolized the optimism and apparent vigor of small-town Jewish communities in the ten or twenty years after World War II than the synagogue building boom that took place there” (297).
Building a new synagogue was certainly about physical space; but it was also about the symbolism of place. A synagogue would create a visual and spiritual center of Jewish life in Old Town, Maine. As Michael Hoberman writes, “The synagogue was key to the continuity of Jewish traditions among otherwise isolated New England Jews”(171). Old Town’s Jewish community understood this well. Article 2 of their by-laws reads:
The Purpose of this Corporation shall be as follows: to acquire, provide, equip and Maintain (sic) a building for the purpose of establishing a House of Worship in said Old Town for reasons of the Jewish faith; to found and maintain a building as a Center from which all activities for the betterment of the Jewish people shall emanate; to promote the general welfare of the Jewish community of Old Town, especially concerning its religious, charitable, educational, and benevolent purposes…
In fact, the first order of business recorded in the minutes from a November 1945 meeting was the question of whether or not men and women should sit together. Two motions were made and seconded that evening to allow for mixed seating– both were withdrawn. Tensions resurfaced in a May 1946 meeting. Harold Hoos’ put forward a motion on whether to continue or not with their plans for a new temple. The motion to continue passed and a new building committee was struck. No other entries are recorded until 1950.
The Jewish community entered the next decade with a renewed commitment. In May 1950, 21 men together pledged over $6000 for the construction of a new synagogue. Anyone familiar with Old Town’s business district would recognize the names: Cutler, Goldsmith, Hillson, Hoos, Podolsky, Sklar, and Shiro. In August 1950 Abe Podolsky made a motion “to change name of Shule to Temple Israel” (August 3, 1950, page 5). The motion carried. A week later a corporation was formed under the name Temple Israel.
But even as they purchased property and pledged money to a building fund, there was still discussion on the will to go forward. Minutes from an October 1952 meeting note if a certain pledge goal is not reached, “then it would indicate a new structure is not desired.” Similarly, in April 1953 as the Board discussed funds sufficient to begin construction, it is recorded that Harold Hoos again challenged the will of the community as he had in 1946. “No matter how much money we had,” he argued, “we must first want a shul.” Hoos made a motion asking members present to reaffirm their support. The motion carried, although it was specifically stated the vote was not unanimous. These terse entries are telling, reminding us to be attentive to the more complicated story of being Jewish in Old Town, Maine.
Affiliation remained a contentious issue. B’nai Israel was Orthodox, but this was a new era. People realized if the community was not only to survive, but also thrive some compromises would have to be made. Minutes from a September 1952 meeting acknowledge the issue. “The younger element are in favor of changing orthodox services to one of conservative. This possibility discussed back and forth.” The Board decided to poll the membership. “There were many arguments back and forth,” reads a later entry. By nature, tradition resists reform. So much had already been given up, lost to the pressures of being Jewish in small-town Maine. In the end the minutes read: “a show of hands indicated the membership would welcome a change of service to Conservative type.” The change was implemented, although former members describe the services at Temple Israel as more “Conservadox.” Tradition did not give way completely to reform. Construction of Temple Israel began in 1953. It was a modest structure: a one story, open plan sanctuary with a basement social room–complete with a full kitchen courtesy of the Temple Israel Sisterhood. The congregation built what they could afford, but they were not inattentive to style while doing so. This sacred space reflected not only the relationship of these Jews with God, but also with one another and the larger community.
Temple Israel was officially dedicated on September 11, 1955 with much fanfare and anticipation for a future where local Jews could enact their faith and traditions in a distinctly Jewish setting. And this was certainly the case for awhile. Although Temple Israel never had a full time rabbi and did not function as a fully operational synagogue year-around, it did fulfill its mission of “establishing a House of Worship in said Old Town for reasons of the Jewish faith…”. High holy day services were held each year, men gathered to pray, and to say kaddish for a deceased loved one.
Monthly social and religious gatherings became a tradition, Hebrew school was offered, weddings and bar mitzvahs (and even a bat mitzvah) were celebrated, Chanukah and Purim parties hosted–Jewish life was being lived in small-town Maine.
But the changes that would reshape small towns all across New England and beyond, would take their toll on Old Town and its Jewish community (Hoberman, Weissbach). People aged, moved to Florida, passed away. Children sent away to university to obtain professional degrees did so and did not come home. The few who did often chose to live in Bangor, not Old Town–which may something about what life in Old Town offered these young Jews–a topic for another paper. Manufacturing, once the life blood of Old Town, dwindled, eroding the economic base of the community. Simultaneously, interstate highways bypassed towns and took consumers straight to malls. Local merchants could not compete and closed their stores. The last Jewish merchant in Old Town was David Cutler, who operated a version of the business started by his grandfather a century before.
The local Jews saw the writing on the wall and made valiant efforts to shore up their community. They looked to the neighboring University of Maine in Orono as a source of congregants, offering Temple Israel as the perfect place for Jewish faculty and their families to worship. And they embraced all who did. Lianne Harris recalled “we always felt welcome.” For awhile a new energy infused Temple Israel as young families such as the Harrises took an active role.
The commitment of these new members was manifested in their willingness to become officers, join the Sisterhood, and purchase new prayer books (re: Schnur). But they also desired a less Conservative orientation. In an effort to make Temple Israel a more inclusive place, the by-laws were amended in July 1974 to read a “person”– not just a “male”– may become an active member of the synagogue. Women would now be counted in the minyan, but they were not called to read from the Torah. That too would change, but only in the waning days of Temple Israel. Although there was resistance, even downright disapproval, Elise Harris celebrated her bat mitzvah at Temple Israel in 1982.
Temple Israel was closed not long after that. The congregation boasts it was not due to a lack of funds–they had plenty of money. It was a lack of Jewish souls. In addition to the demographic and economic factors noted above, a Reform congregation had been recently started in Bangor, and some of Temple Israel’s participants found a more permanent home there. The contents of the synagogue found new homes, too. The torahs were “loaned” with the proviso they may be recalled if the situation changes. The memorial plaque and candelabra took up residence at Congregation Beth Israel in Bangor. Chairs, tables, shawls, and even silverware found a home in Rockland’s synagogue. The congregation kept the building for awhile, thinking/hoping it could be reopened as a synagogue. But that did not come to pass. In 1989, the building was sold to a neighboring business and is now owned by the City of Old Town.
But this is not the end Temple Israel’s story. Its funds were given to the Maine Holocaust Project and to the Old Town Public Library. Today, Temple Israel’s donation accounts for approximately 10 % of the library’s book budget. As well, a scholarship fund created at Old Town High School annually supports several college-bound students. Old Town’s Jewish community is all but gone, but its legacy continues–promoting “charitable, educational, and benevolent purposes” just as it set out to do in its charter some 60 years ago.
I tell a story here that appears seamless on the surface, but that belies the deeper realities of creating and living a Jewish life in small-town Maine. It does not speak of the isolation, the internal disputes, the anti-semitism, and the cultural tensions that are also part of the story. Temple Israel’s history is itself more complex than this paper suggests, as is the history of Jewish life in Old Town. But that it did come into existence at all is a testament to a resiliency and inventiveness that has shaped Judaism for millennia.
References (in addition to archival material):
Hoberman, Michael. How Strange it Seems: The Cultural Life of Jews in Small-Town New England. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2008.
Weissbach, Lee Shai. Jewish Life in Small-Town America: A History. New Haven & London: Yale UP, 2005.
I would like to thank the Jewish Community Endowment Association and the University of Maine’s Women’s Studies Women in Curriculum for their support of this research.