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In Portland, Maine, One Community of Immigrants Welcomes Another

A joint Shabbat-iftar event in the ‘Jerusalem of the North’ on a trip Across the JEW.S.A

Tablet Studios
May 04, 2023
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

The classic tale of Ashkenazi Jewish immigration to the U.S. in the early 1900s goes a little something like this: Along with millions of other immigrants, Jews from Eastern Europe arrived in Ellis Island in droves, settling first in Brooklyn or the Lower East Side. Then some of them, after making a little money or reuniting with family members, packed up and headed all over the country.

But what about the Jews who arrived in the Lower East Side, in perhaps the winter of 1917, and decided the biggest problem with New York City was that it was just too warm?

That’s how many Jews first arrived in Maine, and specifically Portland, the city we visited for this month’s installment of “Across the JEW.S.A,” our series exploring Jewish communities around the continental United States. According to David Freidenreich, professor of Jewish studies at Colby College and associate director of the school’s Center for Small Town Jewish Life, there’s at least one story of a Jewish man who, in search of a colder climate, rode the train from New York all the way to Houlton, Maine, on the Canadian border.

“Most didn’t take the train that far,” Freidenreich said. “They got as far as Portland and decided, ‘This is good enough for me.’”

In the century since, Jewish Portlanders have transformed the city—Maine’s largest, with about 68,000 residents—into a home. Portland’s Jewish population, which according to a 2007 community study comprises 4,000 households occupied by about 8,000 Jews, is made up of two broad groups. The first group is descended from those initial early immigrants: the Lithuanian Jews, Polish Jews, and Hasidic Jews attracted to Maine’s colder climate and cheaper peddlers licenses, the latter of which served as a stepping stone toward owning downtown landmarks like Hub Furniture and Eli Klaman Bottles. These old Jewish Portlanders maintained three Orthodox synagogues in the heart of the city, and helped create demand for the state’s six kosher butchers. They lived alongside recent Irish and Italian immigrants in neighborhoods that were eventually redlined, and created such a locus for Jewish thought and study that Portland earned the nickname “Jerusalem of the North.”

The second group that helps make up today’s Jewish Portland arrived much more recently, to a much-changed city. Jews coming to Portland now, for jobs, access to nature, or lower rents than Boston or New York can offer, find a city in the midst of reinvention. The industrial core on the waterfront now sports swanky coffee shops and OMG—”Organically Maine Grown”—Cannabis. As for the traditional threads of Jewish fabric, there are no longer any kosher butchers in the Jerusalem of the North, or anywhere in Maine. Etz Chaim, the one original Orthodox synagogue left downtown, reinvented itself in the early 2000s by incorporating mixed-gender seating and joining forces with the Maine Jewish Museum, which shares a building with the synagogue.

Etz Chaim has apparently found success this way, going from around 100 members 20 years ago to more than 300 families today. But not every synagogue has this story to tell. Some closed their doors entirely; others sold their historic buildings and began to rent space in other shuls. As more traditional markers of observance have declined, or families have moved out of the original ethnic neighborhoods downtown, or the city around it has gentrified, Portland’s Jewish community has had to define what Jewish life in Maine means to them.

For many, it has meant forming ties with the generations of immigrants to Maine that have come after them. We saw this in the former Shaarey Tphiloh synagogue building in Portland’s Woodfords neighborhood, which was going to be torn down until Portland Community Squash, a local nonprofit, matched funds with the synagogue’s members to preserve the building and turn it into a space for educating and bringing together Mainers of all stripes. According to PCS founder Barrett Takesian, squash players from 26 countries of origin now use the four courts crammed into Shaarey Tphiloh’s old prayer hall.

We met Muslim kids from Uganda and Jewish kids from the synagogue down the street who had not only learned a new sport, but also made new friends in this space originally built by Jews. The Stars of David on the doors may have faded, and the old mikvah in the back may have become a storage space for basketballs, but the synagogue structure is still a center for community, years after its original members had to relocate.

On the night we visited Portland, we attended a joint Shabbat dinner and Ramadan iftar breakfast, held at the local Jewish Community Alliance and co-hosted with the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center. The evening featured a Shabbat candle-lighting, a Muslim call to prayer, and more than 100 attendees of different backgrounds and faiths. Part of its goal, according to JCA Executive Director Molly Curren Rowles, was to build bonds between Maine’s Jews and Muslims, bonds that had nothing to do with responding to tragedy or recent attacks on pluralism, and had everything to do with acknowledging common goals, the need for cooperation, and shared histories of immigration.

Over tables filled with challah, halal shish kebabs, and kosher meat, we met a Sudanese real estate agent specializing in overcoming language barriers in home buying, a Jewish professor who connected the help HIAS gave him and his Holocaust survivor parents to the refugee resettlement work done by the JCA today, and Reza Jalali, head of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center. Originally from Kurdistan, Jalali looked out at the multifaceted crowd around him and said, “That’s the magic of America.”

“The contours of the [Jewish] community, the practices of the community, have in many instances changed,” Curran Rowles of the JCA said. “But the depth of commitment, and the way Jewish life and Jewish thought is animating people, is still really real on the ground.”

Portland, Maine, may no longer be the Jerusalem of the North. But its Jews have found ways to feel deeply Jewish in their values, and in their actions. They feel Jewish in prayer, and in nature, and in helping newer Mainers create homes right alongside theirs.

Tablet Magazine
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Ep. 361: Nosh with Tash’s Natasha Feldman’s ‘The Dinner Party Project,’ and a trip Across the Jew.S.A. to Portland, Maine
May 04, 2023
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Across the JEW.S.A was created with support from the Jewish Federations of North America.

Across the JEW.S.A. was created with support from the Jewish Federations of North America.

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