SOUTH PORTLAND — Congregation Bet Ha’am, the city’s only synagogue and the only Reform Jewish temple in southern Maine, has a new spiritual leader, the sixth in its 26-year history.
Rabbi Jared Saks, 33, presided over his first sabbath worship last week.
Saks replaced interim Rabbi Sam Seicol, a Massachusetts-based teacher who led worship since last fall. The previous full-time rabbi, Alice Goldfinger, served the congregation for 10 years.
The young teacher becomes Bet Ha’am’s new leader just two years after the congregation built a new, modern sanctuary at 81 Westbrook St. The open, wood-and-glass-walled worship space is attached to the former Alice Sawyer School, which the congregation bought from the city for $600,000 in 2005.
Saks was ordained in 2005 at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. Before moving to South Portland, he was an assistant and then associate rabbi at Temple Israel in Minneapolis, a congregation of about 2,000 families.
Congregation Bet Ha’am, although much smaller, is the largest reform congregation in northern New England, with more than 350 member households.
In Minneapolis, Saks was involved mostly with youth activities and worship, including an annual event where members of his congregation joined other religious youth in a sleep-out for homelessness called “Night in the Streets.” He said after sleeping out in the cold and rain, young people he worked with went back home to their beds more grateful than they’d been ever been before.
After working at Temple Israel for six years, Saks said it was time for him to move on and lead his own congregation. He began searching in October.
His interest in Bet Ha’am wasn’t the first time the New Jersey native’s path led him to Maine. Two years ago, he took a vacation here with some friends; he said it still surprises him that he ended up in the state.
“I never thought at that point it would be somewhere I’d end up living,” he said. “I still like that I live somewhere where people go for vacation.”
Saks and his partner, Kirk Boettcher, moved to a home in the Willard Square neighborhood in June. Saks, who is gay, said he has never encountered homophobia or judgment from members of his religious community.
The Reform movement in Judaism has been an open and accepting place for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people for years, he said. When he was in religious school in the 1990s, part of his curriculum was about welcoming gay and lesbian Jews.
Saks said that message of acceptance is inspired by the same religious values that drove him to work against homelessness in Minnesota.
“It really goes back to our narrative as people,” Saks said. “Thirty-six times in Torah, more often than any other commandment, we’re advised to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger, which are the Bible’s metaphors for the weakest members of our society, the people that are on the fringes. And when we get that commandment, the next verse is ‘because you were strangers to Pharaoh in the land of Egypt.’
“We all know we’ve been places where we’ve been underdogs. God says to us, ‘You remember that experience. And your debt to me for getting you out is to make sure you don’t leave other people there, that you watch out for people on the fringe.’”
Saks said he is excited to take part in the synagogue’s agricultural programs. Right before he started his new post in South Portland, the congregation was awarded a grant from the Union for Reform Judaism to fund a wheat harvesting program.
Along a side of the synagogue, varieties of wheat are planted and growing quickly. Saks said congregants will harvest the wheat in the fall and use it to make challah, the braided bread traditionally served on the sabbath. They’ll also plant winter wheat to use for matzoh, the unleavened bread eaten during Passover in the spring.
Saks said he is also excited to start working alongside volunteers in the raised-bed garden behind the synagogue, where members grow kale, tomatoes, onions and beans.
The rabbi said he was first exposed to sustainable food politics in rabbinical school, where he read “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser.
“I didn’t eat fast food, so I thought it would be interesting, but not impactful,” Saks said. “I didn’t really know the scope of the book and how much it went beyond fast food.”
Saks kept kosher at the time he read the book. He said the book opened his eyes to “the ethical implications of food,” especially in the meat industry. “The kosher industry wasn’t really any different,” he said.
Since then, Saks said he no longer keeps kosher in the traditional sense, but is part of a movement that some call “eco-kosher.”
“Initially I stopped eating kosher meat and started eating sustainably raised meat in a kosher fashion,” Saks said. “But over time, my food habits have developed in a way so that I feel that the way the food got to my plate acknowledges that food doesn’t just show up – that workers are involved, that animals are involved and that God creates a system in which all of that can exist. I am aware of God in that process.”
Saks said it’s a kind of food activism that fits in well with the general philosophy of activism called tikkun olam, or “repair of the world,” that is central to Reform Judaism and what he perceives as his duty.
“Part of my responsibility as a Rabbi is to help inspire my congregation and the Jewish community to fix the world in which we live,” Saks said. The idea of getting involved is partly what drew him to Bet Ha’am in the first place, he said.
“Bet Ha’am is a community that generates a lot of volunteerism, a lot of congregational involvement, a lot of community involvement,” he said. “It’s because of this concept of togetherness as a community.”
Board President Lisa Pierce said she feels confident that Saks is a good fit for the congregation. She said they have similar goals, that they complement each other.
“We would love to have him stay with us for many years to come,” she said.
Rabbi Jared Saks, the new spiritual leader at Congregation Bet Ha’am, the reform synagogue in South Portland.