Our Synagogue History
Etz Chaim Synagogue has quite a storied history, not to mention almost a century of service to Jews in the Portland area. Sit back, grab a cup of coffee or tea and read on to find out just a little bit about our heritage and how we came to be where we are today.
Let’s turn back the clock… Several synagogues and Jewish places of worship in Portland can be traced to the 1880s, but despite that, the still-standing Shaarey Tphiloh building on Newbury Street was the first structure erected specifically as a synagogue in 1904. You can walk down Newbury Street still today and see the façade, with the building’s construction date and congregation’s name in both Hebrew and English on the structure, which now houses offices.
But what about us? Etz Chaim Synagogue came into being because of a dispute that started in 1915 between Rabbi Chaim Shohet and the board of directors of Shaarey Tphiloh over the dismissal of a popular cantor named Lebovitz. Rabbi Shohet’s support of Cantor Lebovitz culminated in the Rabbi’s dismissal in 1917. According to popular legend, at one point the Rabbi’s chair was removed from the sanctuary and placed in the bathroom in protest! At any case, as a result of these events, some members of Shaarey Tphiloh allied with Rabbi Shohet and began their affiliation with Congregation Adas Israel, which was located at 79 Middle Street, in the commercial district in 1917.
In 1920, Congregation Adas Israel purchased an existing building at the head of Congress and India Streets, lot number 5528, with the intention of establishing a new synagogue there. Built, as best as can be determined, shortly after Portland’s infamous 1866 fire, the building had been, up to that point, a boarding house, with six apartments, mostly inhabited by members of Portland’s Irish community.
Shortly afterwards, former members of the recently closed Temple Israel began to affiliate with Adas Israel. Similarly, many former members of Congregation Beth Judah, upon its closure in the 1920s, also joined Adas Israel. Although the name of the original architect is unknown, contractor of the project was Louis Serota, a member of the congregation, who applied for a building permit on July 1st of 1921, and according to archival records, was involved in the construction of the synagogue you still see today. Cost of the project, as best as can be determined, was about ten thousand 1921 dollars — a lot of money back then.
But things took another turn. Rabbi Chaim Shohet passed away in 1921 and Adas Israel renamed itself Congregation Etz Chaim in his memory. The Hebrew words “Etz Chaim” mean “tree of life”. In the Summer of 1921, work began to convert the former apartment building into a synagogue and dedication of Etz Chaim’s own building (the one you can visit today) took place on June the 4th of 1922. At least three Portland newspaper articles about the event were published. From historical records, it was found that Rabbi Moses Shohet, as well as guest speaker Rabbi Joseph Miller of New York City, addressed the congregation. Mrs. H. A. Meyers, who was President of the congregation’s Sisterhood, presented the Sisterhood’s gift – a sacred ark in which the Torah would be stored – to the president of the Etz Chaim, Jacob E. Rubinsky. Several children of the congregation assisted in the unveiling of the ark. Again, it’s the one you can still see today.
In 1923, Etz Chaim, which had an Orthodox Rabbi, Moses Shohet, also hired Rabbi Phineas Israeli, who was a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Rabbi Israeli initiated modern touches at the synagogue including late Friday evening services with sermons in English, which was a departure from the old sermons in Yiddish. He also advocated for Conservative affiliation through the United Synagogue of America. Although the board of directors went through the motions of joining that organization, ultimately Etz Chaim remained an Orthodox Synagogue until the 21st century. Rabbi Israeli remained at Etz Chaim only four years, leaving due to illness.
In 1929, the founding of the Vaad Hoir (Jewish Community Council) was a pivotal time for the Orthodox Jewish Community. This organization would provide a means for one rabbi to serve three Orthodox Synagogues in Portland. Although Etz Chaim was perceived as a “modern” synagogue upon its founding, the effort to gain support for its affiliation with the Conservative movement was short-lived.
Etz Chaim continued to thrive as an Orthodox Synagogue, but change was in the air. After World War II, a lot of Portland’s Jews returned from overseas and started families. They wanted more space, so moved to the “suburbs.” While only a couple miles away, the “suburban flight” to the Woodfords neighborhood meant the Munjoy Hill Jewish community was slowly drying up.
Shaarey Tphiloh built a 2nd location on Noyes Street in the 1950s, and while they continued services at the Newbury Street shul until 1977, it was eventually sold and stands now as the office building we mentioned earlier. Down the block, the Jewish neighborhood (there had been Kosher butchers and bakeries along Middle and Hampshire streets, and a Jewish owned drugstore named Punsky’s where Hugo’s restaurant is today) were slowly vanishing. Congregation Anshei Sfard on Cumberland Avenue was demolished in the early 1970s to make way for the Franklin Arterial, though their memorial tablets and ornate holder for same were saved from the wrecker’s ball and can be seen today in our Etz Chaim chapel.
This all resulted in a slow and steady declining membership at Etz Chaim. However, in spite of a dwindling membership in its congregation, accompanied by a decrease in revenues, Etz Chaim managed to keep the doors open during the latter part of the twentieth century.
Changes were made to the building. To prevent vandalism and further damage, the congregation decided to brick up our magnificent stained glass front window and, to cut down on heating bills, to lower the sanctuary ceiling (with the women moving to the main floor, but still separate from the men’s seating as is traditional in Orthodox Judaism). Ultimately, they decided to close the entire 3rd floor and cover the windows with heavy insulation panels. Mostly, services were held in the first floor small chapel, and even that was rarely full enough to support a minyan (in those days 10 men for services, and these days 10 people). The future looked dim.
Good changes, however, were coming… many of which survive with us to the present day. In 1985, Etz Chaim’s building became the first home for Congregation Bet Ha’am, Maine’s first Reform synagogue. Bet Ha’am continued to worship here for a few years until the congregation outgrew our facilities and moved to South Portland, where they continued to grow, becoming Maine’s largest congregation by the beginning of 2000. They continue to grow in their own building there today.
In the 1990s, David (“Buddy”) Silverman provided financial support for the synagogue and also organized prayer services for the few remaining Orthodox members, so we hung on.
Stronger positive changes were in the cards. In 2003, a huge shift happened when Rabbi Harry Sky became the rabbi-in-residence at Etz Chaim. He was Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth El, the still-thriving Conservative Jewish Congregation in Portland. Rabbi Sky initiated “Jews without Boundaries,” which, from 2003 to 2009, helped to rekindle interest in Etz Chaim Synagogue. He described it as, “A very simple concept. Anyone who wants to know himself or herself as a Jew is welcome to this place… You don’t have to go through any special services or special ceremonies… in order to be considered part of our community.”
Etz Chaim had become an Egalitarian synagogue — a word defined as “a place believing in the principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities.”
At Etz Chaim today we continue to live that principle. Women participate fully in religious services and are no longer required to sit in the balcony or any other separate area. Gays and lesbians, mixed couples and anyone who wishes can not only attend our services, but participate in them.
Around this same time, in the early part of the century, the heavy lifting started: A major fund drive to restore and assure the longevity of our building began and the call for a fulltime rabbi went out as Rabbi Sky decided to “retire” once again, this time moving to North Carolina.
Gary Berenson, who had helped lead services for over 30 years as a lay leader and cantor took the plunge. He enrolled in seminary, became ordained and took his cantorial voice to new heights as Etz Chaim’s rabbi.
Meanwhile, the bricks came off the stained glass; the false ceiling was removed from the 2nd floor sanctuary and underneath, seen for over 40 years by only a few pigeons, we discovered a Jewish “time capsule”.
Original 1921 chandeliers, railings and floors were still there. A majority of the stained glass window, with its unique Star of David design, was intact behind the bricks and insulation covering it to keep the cold out. Fund drives raised the needed cash to call in the still-existing stained glass company, who made the window whole again. And a lot of the other original fixtures were “unearthed” too.
Meanwhile, under Rabbi Berenson’s leadership, the doors stayed open to anyone who wanted to come: mixed marriage couples were welcome, along with gay couples, traditional and Reform Jews, and anyone and everyone in between. As long as they wanted to attend, everyone was and is welcome.
Services to this day reflect our diversity. Monday evening minyans, on the Etz Chaim schedule since its founding, remain at 5 p.m. and are Orthodox style. Aside from announcing that we begin on Page 157, almost no English is heard during the 30-minute service.
Saturday morning Torah Services at 9.30 are somewhere between Orthodox and Conservative, but an English Dvar Torah and lively discussion with the rabbi and congregation make them well-attended. Same for the kiddush which follows in the community room.
And on the 2nd Friday evening of each month from September to May, Etz Chaim has a Reform family service in the main sanctuary at 7, usually accompanied by a guest speaker from the community. Speakers have ranged from the mayor of Portland to a lady who teaches pickle-making, the owner of popular bakery Two Fat Cats, who was not only fascinating with her remarks, but brought pies to seal her place as one of our best-loved speakers! We also have childrens’ services and more.
What about membership? Once down to under 15 families in the 1990s, we have grown to number almost 300 families today. We continue to live Rabbi Sky’s mantra and anyone who wishes is welcome and may consider themself a member. We have no set dues and no tickets are required for the High Holy Days, yet we operate in the black, thanks in large part to our collaboration with the Maine Jewish Museum and a new group of active volunteers.
So there you have it. If you want to be a part of our continuing story, come visit us. Or if you are close-by, consider joining Etz Chaim. Our building is one of the oldest remaining European-style synagogues in continuous use in Maine and our recent extensive restoration has returned our building to its original modest grandeur, while updating things with new bathrooms, an elevator and a bimah (pulpit) which is a fully handicap accessible. Our interior includes the original dome ceiling and that large stained glass window above the ark, but it also contains a number of dedicated, interested people who make things happen and keep us truly growing as a tree of life.
As our late beloved member Steve Hirshon always said, the building itself “…gives a sense of spirituality.” We hope you will agree.