Shalom Life | January 07, 2015

Shalom, Maine: A Jewish Culture Guide

Today Maine’s Jewish community is small but thriving, with approximately 13, 890 Jewish people living in the state, according to a 2013 poll by the Jewish Virtual Library.

By: Sara Torvik

Published: January 6th, 2015 in Culture » Society » News

Shalom, Maine: A Jewish Culture Guide
And we’re off, to anywhere and everywhere, as we say ‘Shalom’ every week to different global travel destination. World cities, provincial towns, and even the most unassuming of suburbs are infused with Jewish history and culture, some of which is waiting to be discovered.

For the pious follower, the curious traveler, or the intrepid adventurer, we’ll unearth the best of what to do and where to go. Be it an emerging subculture, a historical landmark, or simply a triumph of art in any form, Jewish experiences are found around the world; and likely as well in your backyard.


It may be in the destination, the journey, or the company, but there is much to uncover and celebrate near and far, so hurry up and get going.

Shalom, Maine


The first Jewish residents to arrive and settle in the New England state of Maine came from Germany around 1829. Many of these Jews originated in the Boston area and came to Maine as peddlers, walking the roads of the huge state and going from farm house to farm house to sell their products.

Haiman Philip Spitz was the first modern Jewish settler in the town of Bangor and helped found, along with five other Jewish families, Congregation Ahawas Achim, which was officially formed in 1849. However, due to economic difficulties, the synagogue and most of the German Jews who founded it, disappeared by 1856. A second group of German Jews came to Bangor in the 1860s and 1870s.

One thing that the Jews of Maine were fortunate enough to not have to endure is a large amount of is anti-Jewish sentiment. Maine’s Catholic community actually felt the brunt of prejudice, especially its French Catholic community. Many anti-Catholic activists in the 1840s burned down Catholic churches and tarred and feathered Catholic priests. In addition to that, in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan of Maine, part of a rejuvenated national KKK movement, marched through the streets of several Maine communities, but aimed most of their animosity, once again, at the Catholics rather than the much smaller and less visible Jewish or African American communities.

This is not to say that Maine's Jews were not immune from social restrictions. There were still many resorts, country clubs, and private social organizations throughout the state that restricted Jews from participating. As the 1960s arrived, a number of non-Jewish politicians, including Maine's then-governor, Kenneth Curtis, decided to put an end to those discriminatory practices. It was also a non-Jew, Charles W. Allen, the father of Maine Congressman Tom Allen, a Portland lawyer and member of the Portland City Council, who was one of the first leaders to force private clubs in Maine to open their memberships to Jews.

Today Maine’s Jewish community is small but thriving, with approximately 13, 890 Jewish people living in the state, according to a 2013 poll by the Jewish Virtual Library.

If you happen to find yourself in the area, one of the key things to check out would be the Maine Jewish Museum, which is located in downtown Portland. The building is actually a restored turn-of-the-century synagogue, Etz Chaim, which has been turned into a museum that has three floors.


According to their website, “The first floor gallery showcases rotating exhibits by contemporary Jewish artists from Maine.

From the second floor, visitors enter the main sanctuary and can gain an understanding of religious practices and beliefs through objects and architecture.

In the vestibule of our new elevator addition is the photo exhibit of Holocaust survivors who settled in Maine by Jack Montgomery accompanied by excerpts of their oral testimonies. (This exhibit is made possible by the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine.)

Historic exhibits on the third floor include storyboards highlighting the contributions and accomplishments of Maine’s original Jewish immigrants and their families. Linking past and present, these displays serve as learning tools for visitors and students. Our newest panels highlight the Jewish communities of Lewiston/Auburn and Bath.”

Maine also has an annual Jewish Film Festival that takes place in Portland every year. This year’s festival takes place from March 22-29. Portland is actually the smallest city in the United States to boast an independent, professional Jewish film festival and over the years it has grown to be one of the best-attended, most well-respected, and highly-anticipated cultural events in the State.


Just goes to show that you don’t necessarily have to be living in New York City to be a part of an active and thriving Jewish community. Some of the smaller and less renowned regions have a lot to offer, as well.

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