New year begins new era for historic Portland synagogue

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PORTLAND — When worshippers attend services for the new Jewish year this weekend at Etz Chaim synagogue, they will bear witness to a vision that has been discussed for the last five years.

That long-term vision is to return the 1920s synagogue to its original luster and establish a museum of Maine Jewish history, art and culture that would eventually conduct community outreach and education.

Executive Director Gary Berenson said the synagogue was once a keystone in the lives of Jewish immigrants, who began arriving in the 1840s. Maine as a whole, he said, was referred to as “Jerusalem of the North” because so many Jews were settling in Portland, Bangor, Augusta, Rockland, Bath, Biddeford, Calais, Old Orchard and Lewiston.

Berenson said the building at 267 Congress St., with its high domed ceiling and spacious entry, social hall and third-story balcony, lends itself well to housing a museum. “No one has seen this yet,” he said. “When they walk in they will be surprised and delighted. I have been talking about this for five or six years.”

Although the synagogue has undergone a transformation in recent weeks, there is still a lot of work left. After the High Holidays, which begin Friday night with Rosh Hashanah and end with Yom Kippur on Sept. 28, restoration will resume, including construction of an expanded social hall and an elevator.  

Etz Chaim sits a couple hundred feet back from Congress Street, near the India Street intersection. The three-story building was once hidden by two apartment complexes that were torn down in the 1940s. The narrow walkway leading to the front door will be turned into a meditative garden, Berenson said. 

Members of Maine’s first synagogue on Newbury Street founded Etz Chaim in the 1920s, because they wanted to hear sermons in English, not Yiddish. It is a nondenominational synagogue, which opens its doors to anyone, regardless of marital status or religious or sexual preferences. Weekly services at the progressive synagogue are led by volunteers, rather than a rabbi, although longtime Portland Rabbi Harry Sky, now of Falmouth, will be among the speakers during the High Holidays.

The renovation effort is being led by the Tree of Life Foundation, a nonprofit group formed three years ago for the $2.5 million project.

Foundation President Jody Sataloff of Cape Elizabeth, who was also a founder of Congregation Bet Ha’am in South Portland, said Etz Chaim is Maine’s oldest example of a traditional, European-style orthodox synagogue that once separated women from men for prayer. She said the building’s history helps add to the allure of the synagogue.  

“It reeks of its old-world heritage,” Sataloff said. “You walk into the building and it grabs you.”

So far, the foundation has removed a suspended ceiling over the sanctuary that blocked off a balcony, where women were once segregated for services. Workers have restored the third floor walls and painted the arcing ceilings, which had been neglected over the years.

Workers have also uncovered a stained-glass window that had been covered by bricks. Although some of the panes are broken and the sills have rotted from water damage, Berenson said the display will be refurbished and rebuilt.

Once the High Holidays are over, Berenson, who has led services for the last 25 years, said the 1970s wooden panels will be removed and the walls restored while the tile on the sanctuary will be covered with hardwood floors.

The building’s new role, as a museum of Jewish art, will start this week. A photo exhibit, “Jewish Memories,” by Judy Ellis Glickman, will line the first-floor hallways this weekend.

Berenson said the museum’s historical, cultural and artistic items will be displayed throughout the synagogue, including on the third-floor balcony. “It’s intended to be a living museum,” he said.

The museum’s purpose is not only to highlight the synagogue’s history and celebrate Maine’s Jewish heritage, but also to connect with other immigrant communities through outreach and education.

“This will be a wonderful addition, not only to the Jewish community, but to the greater Portland community as a whole,” Sataloff said. 

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or


synagogue3.jpgThe front of Etz Chaim synagogue at 267 Congress St. in Portland.

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synagogue1.jpgGary Berenson, Tree of Life Foundation executive director, in the sanctuary at Etz Chaim synagogue on Munjoy Hill in Portland. The 1920s-era building is slated to house a museum of Maine Jewish history, art and culture.