PORTLAND — It was a quarter century ago when a twist of fate propelled Gary Berenson into what would become his life’s work.
It was September 1988, and the spiritual leader at historic Etz Chaim Synagogue had just fallen ill. The Jewish High Holidays were fast approaching and the synagogue’s board of directors faced a tough decision: either cancel the services or convince Gary Berenson – a 36-year-old member of the congregation – to lead the worship.
Berenson, now with a bushy gray beard, recalled the magnitude of the long-ago request:
“It was very much like they called me up from Double A (baseball) and said, ‘Can you start the World Series? Oh, and by the way, can you pitch all seven games?'”
Berenson reluctantly accepted the offer and nervously mounted the bimah, where he led a full day of prayers and chants, in Hebrew, for the small congregation on Congress Street. Lucky for Berenson, rabbis often face away from the congregation, toward the ark, where the Torah is kept, when they pray.
“They couldn’t see me trembling and they couldn’t see me saying … ‘what did I get myself into?'” he recalled.
Despite his anxiety, the services went well, and Berenson was asked to stay on. For the past 25 years, he has been leading the congregation as a lay leader. Berenson wasn’t an ordained rabbi then, nor is he an ordained rabbi now, but all that will change later this year.
At age 62, when most people begin eyeing their retirements, Berenson in June will become an ordained rabbi.
In the meantime, he will be stepping down from his dual posts as executive director of the Maine Jewish Museum and board president of Etz Chaim Synagogue, two separate entities that share the old synagogue at 267 Congress St., at the top of India Street.
Berenson will “pass the torch” to his museum successor, Ani Helmick, who has served as assistant director for the past two years, during an event at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 1, at the museum.
In addition to becoming a rabbi this year, Berenson will fulfill his vision of renovating Etz Chaim Synagogue – a $1.5 million project that has been nine years in the making. The three-story brick building is in the midst of $500,000 project to install an elevator, improve the restrooms and add a sprinkler system. Five years ago, the synagogue underwent a $1 million effort that essentially saved the century-old building from demolition.
Berenson’s relationship with Etz Chaim spans his entire life.
He was born in Portland in 1952 to a first-generation Jewish-American father and Christian mother with three Christian siblings. The family owned a dry cleaning business called B&B Cleaners.
When he was 5, Berenson and his mother were converted to Judaism. Back then, attendance was low at Etz Chaim; under Jewish law, the congregation could not conduct services unless there was a minyan, or quorum, of at least 10 men. Berenson’s father would take the young boy to services to help round out the numbers.
Berenson also attended Portland Hebrew Day School, where students were taught in Hebrew for half the day and English during the second half. Later, Berenson enrolled in secular education, including Deering High School.
Berenson moved to California at age 27, but returned to Portland two years later, in 1981, to take over the family’s cleaning business. He attended services at Etz Chaim occasionally in the early ’80s.
By then, the synagogue was in tough shape, he recalled.
“It was literally crumbling around us,” he said. “The ceiling had collapsed, the walls had caved in.”
The synagogue’s balcony had been closed off with a drop ceiling and the empty space was inhabited by pigeons. A massive stained-glass facade had been bricked over to prevent vandalism. Wood floors were tiled over. Walls were covered in dark wood panelling. The roof, which hadn’t been maintained in 50 years, would leak rainwater onto worshippers.
“It was like a dungeon,” Berenson said.
By the time Berenson was elected president of the board in 2002, the synagogue was at extreme ends. It had to be fixed or razed.
The congregation was small, too. At its nadir, about 15 to 20 families attended services, which was not nearly enough to help raise $1 million for repairs.
In 2005, Berenson hatched the idea of a creating the Maine Jewish Museum to help raise interest in the aging building and spur the capital project. By 2009, the effort had raised enough money to begin initial work, which then created momentum and more donations, including a $250,000 donation from Donald Sussman that allowed the group to remove the drop ceiling and restore the balcony.
“We call him ‘the angel,'” Berenson said of Sussman.
In the run-up to the renovation, the board began making changes to the tone and tenor of the synagogue, changing it from an Orthodox institution to “non-affiliated.”
In its Orthodox days, the synagogue separated the men from the women during worship. Originally, women were required to sit in the balcony, while men sat on the main level.
“We decided that it didn’t fit the modern lifestyle,” Berenson said. “It didn’t fit the belief of our congregation, so we included men and women as equals. And then we started to see more people come and join us.”
Today, the congregation has grown to about 250 families, Berenson said. During High Holidays, attendance swells to more than 400.
When the latest round of renovations are complete, Berenson said, his dual roles as president and executive director will be complete.
“If I had a white horse, I’d ride it into the sunset,” he said. “I wanted to see this building renovated. I wanted to see the museum started. Now, for whatever energy and time I have left, I want to devote myself to leading the congregation.”
Helmick, who will replace Berenson as museum director, said her predecessor is humorous, self-deprecating and surprisingly down to earth for a spiritual leader. Many religious leaders seem restrained by their sense of formality or “properness,” she said, but Berenson is warm and inviting.
On June 28, Berenson will be ordained at Rabbinical Seminary International in New York City, where he has been taking correspondence courses.
“In many ways, not much will change,” he said. “I’m already leading all the services here. I’m doing weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs and all of those things, so the only thing that will change is my title.”
Berenson said part of the appeal of becoming a rabbi is in the word itself.
“‘Rabbi’ means ‘teacher,'” he said. “I love to study and I love to teach, if I can. I could live to be 162 and never begin to scratch the surface of all there is to learn. There’s so much out there.”
Gary Berenson at the bimah in Etz Chaim Synagogue in Portland on Friday, March 21. Although Berenson has been leading worship at the synagogue since 1988, he has never been ordained as a rabbi. That will change in June when he completes his rabbinic training.