A community in flux: JCC to break ground as aging Portland synagogue is sold

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PORTLAND — Sabbath services wound down Saturday morning, June 4, at Shaarey Tphiloh Synagogue with an announcement about this week’s groundbreaking for the a Jewish Community Center.

Groundbreaking for the Morris A. and Bertha Levine Portland Jewish Community Center, which will be on the new Alfred Osher Jewish Community Alliance campus, begins at 4 p.m. Friday, June 10.

The celebration of the new center at 1342 Congress St. (the former St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church) was tempered by the knowledge Shaarey Tphiloh’s days at 76 Noyes St. are numbered.

In about two months, the modern orthodox congregation – the oldest such synagogue north of Boston – will begin worshipping in leased space at Temple Beth El, a few blocks away at 400 Deering Ave. In perhaps six months, the synagogue and school buildings will become the new home of nonprofit Portland Community Squash.

“It has taken us a number of years, but with about 30 member families, it was just not sustainable to stay in the space,” Dr. Natan Kahn said.

Kahn, who presides over the congregation’s board of directors, said the sale of the synagogue is a way to sustain the congregation, which he estimated had a “few hundred” families when it moved to Noyes Street more than 60 years ago.

Shaarey Tphiloh’s roots are on Newbury Street; the synagogue was one of two in the India Street neighborhood before the move to Oakdale in 1954.

The tradition and Shaarey Tphiloh’s place in the community are not lost on Barrett Takesian, board president of Portland Community Squash.

Takesian said he hopes the nonprofit will call the former synagogue home by the end of the year, with a mix of classrooms and squash courts to benefit local youth.

“We want to continue serving the community,” he said June 2. “We could never have anticipated this.”

Portland Community Squash has leagues for students of all ages, but is focused on much more than sports.

“Squash just happens to be the vehicle,” Takesian said. “We use it as a common ground to bring together Portland’s diverse neighborhoods.”

Now based in a partnership at the Portland YMCA, the program has about 60 participants. Takesian hopes membership will triple after the move, which still must be reviewed by the city Planning Board.

“We hope to continue (the partnership), but we have grown past the capacity at the Portland Y,” he said.

Portland Community Squash had planned to be part of the expansion of Bayside Bowl on Alder Street, owned by state Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland.

Takesian said practical matters ended the proposed collaboration.

“It was just rising costs of subcontractors and increased costs of construction. It was hard to put courts over (bowling)  alleys. It just became cost-prohibitive for both sides,” he said.

Instead, the squash players will move to a building with tall ceilings for courts, and classrooms for the services and educational opportunities that come with the squash leagues.

“We want to ensure academic success and put students on the road to college,” Takesian said.

Portland Community Squash is in the midst of a $1.5 million capital campaign to support the shift and new facility.

“We are exceeding our target pace,” Takesian said.

Kahn said he is pleased the synagogue could be sold to a nonprofit, and has been impressed by Takesian and is grateful that plans call for a minimum of changes to Shaarey Tphiloh’s exterior.

The move, however, is still jarring.

“I went to the day school; we had gym classes in the buildings. When you are a kid, you get used to these things being here,” Kahn’s son, Eitan, said.

Now a junior at the University of Maryland, Eitan said the modern orthodox teachings, which balance the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament), with the oral traditions of the Living Torah, or studies encompassing the Talmud with the modern world, are critical to his perspective.

“It is about trying to be honest with traditions and values while recognizing the world changes,” he said.

News of the synagogue sale brought Needham, Massachusetts, resident Myra Sallet in for a visit June 4.

“My mother was very, very much involved with the shul. I decided I would drive by and I saw the lights were on,” she said.

Jeff Halpern, who moved from Israel to Portland two years ago, said he had faith in the board’s decision to sell.

“The building has a lot of history, tradition and love, and I respect that history, tradition and love,” he said. “For my family, the long-term sustainability is more important than holding on to the building.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Shaarey Tphiloh Synagogue at 76 Noyes St. in Portland has served a modern orthodox congregation for more than 60 years and will become home to Portland Community Squash.

Shaarey Tphiloh President Dr. Natan Kahn said June 4 the sale of the synagogue at 76 Noyes St., Portland, is necessary to sustain the congregation.

Dr. Natan Kahn and his son, Eitan Kahn, offer a blessing during the post-Sabbath service meal June 4 at Shaarey Tphiloh Synagogue.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.