BATH — In the Midcoast, Beth Israel Congregation in Bath is the center of Jewish life in the region. It’s the only place of worship for Jews between Portland and Rockland, and its new rabbi and recent affiliation with the Reform movement has led to growth in the nearly 100-year-old congregation.

Rabbi Lisa Vinikoor joined the congregation last year and just finished her second Rosh Hashanah services.

“My job is to bring my expertise and work with and lead alongside members of congregation, and I think it’s one of our strengths,” Vinikoor said.

As a new rabbi in the Midcoast, Vinikoor said she spent the last year getting to know members of the Beth Israel Congregation, and she plans to spend the next year getting to know the broader community. She said Maine has an interesting mix of people from away and others who were born in Maine and have never left.

“I’ve met people in Brunswick who’ve said I’m the first Jewish person they’ve ever met,” congregation member Joanne Rosenthal said.

A STORIED HISTORY IN MAINE
David Freidenreich, a Colby College professor and rabbi, teaches courses and conducts research on Maine’s Jewish history. He said the first Jewish Mainer known to anyone was Susman Abrams, who lived in Waldoborough and Thomaston before settling in Union sometime before 1810.

Maine Jews in the 19th century tended to work as merchants on towns and peddlers in the countryside. They cultivated relationships with their non-Jewish neighbors and created networks of mutual assistance with fellow Jews in Maine and beyond to grow their businesses and weather tough times, Freidenreich said.

The first synagogue in Maine was in Bangor from 1849-1856. Other communal organizations formed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Adas Yoshuron in Rockland, founded in 1912, and Beth Israel in Bath, founded in 1919.

Freidenreich said rough estimates of the current Jewish population in Maine range from 15,000-30,000, or about 1-2 percent of the state’s total population — about 2.2 percent of all Americans are Jewish. There are about 15 places of worship in Maine, including Portland, Augusta, Waterville, Bangor, Rockland and Bath.

The story of Amercian Jewish life, Freindenreich said, typically revolves around Jews in major metropolitan areas like New York City, and many Jews from other states are surprised to learn that there is Jewish life in Maine at all.

“But Jewish life thrives in even off-the-beaten-path Maine, and, in some ways, it does so especially well,” he said. Maine’s Jewish communities today are known for their openness, their spirit of innovation and their eagerness to make the most out of limited resources through collaboration.

Jewish Mainers often express their Jewishness in ways that take advantage of Maine’s natural beauty, Freidenreich said. “After all, Jews have come to Maine over the past 200 years for the same reasons as everyone else: to have a better quality of life in a beautiful place,” he said.

JOINING THE REFORM MOVEMENT
Marilyn Weinberg, president of Beth Israel Congregation in Bath, said her congregants value making everyone feeling welcome at the synagogue. Members come from a variety of traditions, and she said it’s important to honor as many of those practices as possible.

“The Reform movement encourages a diversity of services and programs and allows us the flexibility to create an environment where all feel comfortable,” Weinberg said.

Vinikoor grew up in a small, unaffiliated Jewish community in Vermont, and she said being unaffiliated happens often in rural communities. Denominations, like reform and conservative Judaism, are relatively new to the faith.

She said being connected to the Reform movement, as a small congregation, is helpful in many ways. The Reform movement is trying to be a moral voice around a lot of critical issues facing the country and having access to the Reform world is important.

“It connects us to the larger Jewish world in a more formal way, which is definitely a positive,” Vinikoor said during a recent interview at Beth Israel.

In Augusta, Temple Beth El is affiliated with the Reform movement, and Rabbi Erica Asch said it allows temples and synagogues an opportunity to be collaborative and involved in social justice issues and community organizing.

“Being connected to the movement helps us connect to Jews all across the country and gives us access to resources we otherwise wouldn’t be able to find,” Asch said.

Denise Tepler, a member of Beth Israel and a state representative in Topsham, said the congregation was unaffiliated for so long because members of the congregation come from different places, different levels of observance and different styles of worship within Judaism. She said they wanted to be a big tent for a small and scattered population.

Being unaffiliated really became an issue, Tepler said, when searching for clergy or religious school directors. Without affiliation, it was difficult to draw from that pool. But the Reform movement in Judaism has changed in the last several years, and it has offered our congregation the advantages of affiliation without the drawbacks.

“There is no required commitment to the reform style in worship or a high fee for affiliation,” she said. “I believe our synagogue will continue to offer a home to people with differing levels of observance.”

JEWISH LIFE IN THE MIDCOAST
Freidenreich said the Midcoast has a thriving, diverse and multicultural Jewish community.

While there may not be certain Jewish community groups you’d find in bigger cities, like a sisterhood, men’s club or Jewish youth group, the community is small, but vibrant. There are people from a variety of backgrounds and denominations who participate in Jewish learning and holiday celebrations.

Beth Israel has several different committees and groups, but there aren’t many formal ones. There is a growing Hebrew school with about 25 students, and Vinikoor is helping prepare two students for their upcoming b’nai mitzvot — the Jewish coming of age ritual for boys and girls.

Rosenthal, a lay leader at Beth Israel, said she never really thought about her Jewish identity growing up in New York City because of the large Jewish population there. Since moving to Maine about 30 years ago, she has been more interested in exploring her Jewish identity.

BEING A MINORITY
Rosenthal said one of the challenges she’s faced in having to continually explain the meanings and traditions of the Jewish holidays. She said she does it every year.

Tepler said that while she hasn’t encountered very much direct anti-Semitism, there is still plenty of stereotyping about all Jews being rich or smart or controlling the media. Stereotyping, she said, limits real understanding.

Despite the lack of direct anti-Semitism, Tepler said there is a lot of ignorance about the her faith and traditions. Hanukkah is not an important Jewish holiday, but it has gained prominence as a companion to Christmas, Tepler said. There is no worship service associated with Hanukkah, and the simple ritual associated with it is lighting the candles of the menorah for eight nights.

“When public entities believe they are creating an equality between faiths by recognizing Hanukkah at Christmastime, they are illustrating a profound misunderstanding of our faith and reshaping it to suit their worldview,” she said.

Tepler said there is also a misunderstanding of worship postures. When Jews pray in public, they do not bow their heads and clasp their hands throughout the prayer. There are very specific times for bowing in worship of God in Jewish practice, so a public call to bow your heads and pray is not inclusive, she said.

With these concerns, however, comes a strengthening of Jewish people’s commitment to the faith. Tepler said Jews can’t just coast on the Jewishness of the surrounding community. “If we want to be Jewish, we have to do something about it,” she said.

The real community challenges for Jews in Maine are familiar to other worship communities, Tepler said.

“How do we keep our young people interested and involved? How do we welcome and educate interfaith couples? How do we make Jewish education appealing to families and kids? How we do adapt but remain Jewish?” she said.

Tepler said the answer might reside in the concept of Tikkun Olam, which means “repair of the world.” In practice, it means that Jews must engage in work and care for the world and the people in it — conservationism, environmentalism, social justice.

“I believe that engaging in this works brings us together and gives us a purpose that is unifying,” she said.