Documenting Maine Jewry : Beth Abraham History (Auburn-Lewiston)

HISTORY OF BETH ABRAHAM SYNAGOGUE :
90th Commemorative Review

by Barbara Goodman Shapiro

Only three years after the first Jewish family settled in New Auburn, the Beth Abraham Synagogue was incorporated. Jacob J. Shapiro, the last living member of the Charter Committee at the time of the Synagogue's Fiftieth Anniversary in 1952, recalled much information about the early history of New Auburn and the Charter which was signed in 1902.

It was in Lewiston, in the early 1890's, that the first Jewish families settled. The Markson family, through not a familiar name today, claims as one of its descendants C. Martin "Sonny" Herman of Auburn. In those days, the nearest synagogue was in Portland and it was only on important occasions that the Marksons could attend services. As other Jewish families were attracted to Lewiston, the Markson home became a meeting place for daily minyans and religious services. The Twin Cities were in a boom period and more and more newcomers were arriving; the need to organize and build a place of worship became imperative. It was of utmost importance that their families, especially the children, receive proper religious background and training. And so these early settlers secured a hall on Chestnut Street in Lewiston to fulfill their immediate needs. Most Jewish families at that time lived in the Lincoln Street/Chestnut Street area, and it was there that the first synagogue in the Twin Cities was established.

In the Mid-90's, the "Barker Mill District" as New Auburn was then known, began to grow. Mushrooming overnight, businessmen with an eye to the future began to move to the new community springing up around the Barker Mill. The cities were growing and families were moving from their original neighborhoods which were being overtaken by businesses.

In 1899, several Jewish families moved to New Aubum and, as the numbers increased, it became increasingly difficult to get to the Lewiston Synagogue. The need to establish a nearby place of worship became obvious.

Cornelius "Con" Estes had bought and moved the "old Sixth Street School" to Second Street, just above where the old Walton Bakery once stood. A group of Jewish men approached Mr. Estes and inquired about renting the large, vacant top floor. An agreement was soon reached, and for the next two years services were held on the top floor of the building and a Hebrew School was conducted in the basement. However, the group of men wanted something more permanent, and, after some discussion decided to purchase the building. The late attorney, Frank Morey, drew up the papers of incorporation which were signed by the following men: Hyman Lempert, Maurice Seigal, David Seigal, Abraham Widrowitz, Max Mendelson, Jacob Brownstein, Hyman Savage, Louis Abromson, J. Weisberg, J. J. Shapiro, and Sam Canter. These were the Charter members, noted Israel "Abe" Miller in 1952, but many others contributed to the purchase of the building. Unfortunately, not all the names are known. Jacob J. Shapiro was the first moderator (or President) and Sam Canter the first clerk. A Reverend H. Rosenberg was the first Rabbi, arriving in 1902 and staying until 1905. The first Hebrew teacher was a Mr. Wasserman.

In that same year, 1902, the Beth Abraham Cemetery Association was formed, with Morris Alpren as its Chairman. They reserved a section of the Jewish Cemetery on the Danville Road that had been established by Beth Jacob Synagogue of Lewiston, and later built their own chapel for committal services. The late Sam Goldman and Israel Miller were President and Treasurer, respectively, at the time of the Synagogue's Golden Anniversary in 1952.

Owning their own synagogue enabled the men to make whatever alterations the wished; they promptly renovated the bottom floor into a fine Hebrew School classroom, furnishing it with big old-fashioned double desks purchased from the Auburn School Committee, top floor was remodeled into a sanctuary and the main floor rented to the Artesian Society of Auburn. This new building served not only as a place of worship, but as a community house for the rapidly growing Jewish community. Mr. Miller recalled the parties, bazaars, and theatrical productions that were held there. "We had wonderful times on the holidays. All of us (youngsters) looked forward to anything held there. .. it wasn'tonly thekids...the entire family turned out."

After Rabbi Rosenberg left, a Rabbi Silverman from Ohio came for two years. He was followed by Rabbi M. Levenson, who came directly from Russia, and who was remembered as an excellent Cantor and fine speaker. His Hebrew School was faithfully attended by all the young boys; his devotion to the community made it a natural gathering place.

During those years, Joseph Bernstein, father of Nathan Benson and grandfather of Sylvia Day and Frances Smullin, a served as sexton (caretaker of the Synagogue and its contents). After ten years, he was succeeded by his brother-in-law, Phillip Wexler, a until his health failed. These two dedicated men were the only sextons during those early years.

FIRST SYNAGOGUE - 1917

By this time, the Jewish community had outgrown its quarters and, in 1917, purchased the Union Musical Society building on the corner of Second Street where the Dupont bakery once stood. It meant undertaking a new mortgage, but the future looked bright, for the community was growing steadily. The Congregation was delighted when the final papers were drawn up with People's Savings Bank and the new Synagogue, with its fine vestry, large auditorium and classrooms, was established. They moved in during the summer of 1917, in the midst of World War I, with high hopes and a new leader, Rabbi Levine.

Just six months later, on January 31, 1918, disaster struck; the entire building was destroyed by fire. All that was left were the four outer walls. The insurance had not been transferred to the new building and the New Auburn Jewish community faced a terrible financial loss, one that would have staggered a less determined group. Worse than the loss of money was the loss of a valuable Torah brought from Lithuania by Simon L. Baker, and prized by all Synagogue members. Prayer shawls and other valu¬able documents were also lost. It was a terrible blow, but they immediately began planning how to re-open in the same area. Luckily, the old "Con" Estes building had been bought by Harry Goodkowsky and fixed up as a clubhouse for the younger men of the Jewish community. And so, just six months after moving out of the building, the New Auburn group moved back into it until the new Synagogue was rebuilt. During these years, Reverend M. Kurhan was Rabbi and Mr. Paul Shulman was in charge of the Hebrew School.

It was then that the women of the Synagogue, presided over by Mrs. Moses Shapiro, went to work raising funds to help reduce the large debt They staged card parties, food sales, suppers, all sorts of entertainments and catered at all regular meetings. The disaster seemed to draw the community closer together and everyone, men, women, and children, became more active. Slowly, the Synagogue was building toward a sound financial future.

The present Sisterhood, in the same fashion, still raises monies to help defray Synagogue expenses. It has remodeled the restrooms and vestry, furnished and stocked the kitchen with modern appliances and dinnerware, and has catered countless Bar and Bas Mitzvahs. Today, under the able leadership of Mrs. Joseph (June) Margolin, it holds an Annual Donor dinner, helps cater Sabbath luncheons, enjoys "Chaverim" (friendship) meetings, and does whatever is necessary to help maintain the Synagogue.

Sixty years ago, on a May afternoon in 1933, the New Auburn Fire raced through the entire community, destroying the Synagogue for a second time as well as many members' homes. But even as flames threatened their personal property, the congregants rushed to rescue religious articles from the Synagogue. In the confusion, a beautiful sterling silver Menorah and a handsome candelabra were lost; each member thought someone else had rescued them. Again bibles and prayer shawls were lost, but some religious articles and important documents were saved.

The loss was devastating, for it was in the midst of the Depression. Fortunately, no lives had been lost. And so once again, the Congregation arose; it had rebuilt before and would do so again. A re-building committee was quickly appointed and those serving on it were: Max Miller, Chairman, Mrs. Harry Rubinoff, Secretary, Joseph Lempert, Treasurer and Co-Chairman, Harry Day, Hyman M. Lempert, Morris Winner, Henry Bean, Samuel Canter, David Shapiro, Louis Bernstein, Mrs. Joseph Lelansky, Mrs. Moses Shapiro, Israel Ward, Morris Alpren, Louis Abromson, Simon Lavin, J. J. Shapiro, and Harry Shiffer.

In the interim, the Congregation rented the Lane building for temporary quarters, later purchasing a nearby house for its regular services. For the High Holidays, the Congregation hired the Odd Fellows Hall on Pleasant Street in Auburn.

Considerable thought was given to the location of its new building. The Congregation finally agreed upon a handsome site on Laurel Avenue in Auburn, its present site. It was a fine location, more centralized for many of its members, many of whom now lived in various parts of Auburn and Lewiston.

During those building days, Rabbi Nathanson led the Congregation and Rabbi Spivak ran the Hebrew School. It was a busy year, and on June 23, 1934, the dedication ceremony of the new Beth Abraham Synagogue was held. The first large wedding performed in the new Synagogue was that of Ada and Nat Tapper, who recently celebrated their fifty-fourth anniversary. The past fifty-nine years have seen many more happy occasions: weddings, anniversaries, birth¬day parties, Bar and Bas Mitzvahs, and countless Shabbos dinners.

A Board of Directors ran the Synagogue as it does today. Some of the members in 1952 were: Charles Traister, Chairman, William Bean, Recording Secretary, Maurice Shiffer, Financial Secretary, Leonard Veiner, Treasurer, Isadore Meltzer, Sam Alpren, Arthur Blatt, George Goldberg, Arnold Goldblatt, Max Gordon, Charles Polep, Benjamin Schwartz, Ernest Shapiro, Harry Shiffer, Joseph Winner, and Joseph Koss. -

After Rabbi Naihanson left, Rabbi Louis Rosen from Pennsylvania served for one and a half years. He organized a memorable all-male choir and the first Interdenominational meetings which met during Brotherhood Week. Representatives of all the churches in the cities were guests of the Synagogue; these popular meetings became annual programs of the Beth Abraham Brotherhood.

Following Rabbi Rosen, Rabbi Winokur arrived. An outstanding Cantor with a beautiful voice, it was with deep regret when he left to become a chaplain in the military. Rabbi Zipper was then in charge of the Hebrew School.

The Synagogue has been the focus of Jewish life for over two thousand years, a gathering place for worship, religious instruction and fellowship. Each is independent, maintained by its local Jewish community. And so, Beth Abraham, less than a decade after moving into its new quarters, rededicated itself to the preservation of Judaism. On March 13,1944, after years of setbacks, the congregation burned its mortgage. The determination and courage of its members prevailed; its debt had been paid off.

During World War II, the Synagogue had been served by three different Rabbis: Rabbi Averach, Rabbi Taragin, and Rabbi Shapiro. After the War, Rabbi Norman Zdanowitz became its spiritual leader, serving the community for over twenty years. He won the wholehearted devotion of the Congregation, leaving in the mid-sixties to lead a Synagogue in New York, his original home.

In 1966, Rabbi Norman Geller came to the Synagogue, leading the Congregation for over twenty-six years until his untimely death on February 22, 1992. He was a driving force within the community as well as within the Synagogue. Known as the "flying Rabbi", he served congregants in all areas of New England, flying a plane to weddings and funerals alike. His rapport with children was unusual; he was their "Pied Piper". He reorganized the Hebrew School and organized United Synagogue Youth Programs, Shabbatons and Conventions for youngsters of all ages. Sabbath services, Chanukah parties, Passover Seders and study sessions were always well attended. A gregarious man, his love of the community was sincere, and his passing was mourned by all.

Now, as the Synagogue marks its Ninetieth Birthday, the Congregation has warmly welcomed into the community a new spiritual leader, Rabbi John Samuels and his wife, Rebetzin Carol Samuels, formerly of Memphis, Tennessee. In the past year, they and the Board of Directors have dedicated themselves to revitalizing the Synagogue. Minyans are still held twice daily, seven days a week, a feat unequaled in many larger Synagogues. Sabbath services followed by Oneg Shabbats are held each Saturday morning. The Hebrew School and Sunday School have been reestablished. Volunteers are busy scrubbing, polishing, and painting their beloved Synagogue. The Rabbi, with his beautiful voice and pleasant demeanor, has become a magnet for all who seek Conservative/ Orthodox affiliation.

There is every reason for the Congregation to be impressed by the sound judgment of those early pioneers, that small group of young Jewish men who believed so strongly in the future of the community that they founded a place of worship for their families. That faith has not been misplaced, for what seemed like insurmountable problems have been solved. Now, almost a century later, fifth and sixth generations of those early founders still claim membership in Congregation Beth Abraham. The future seems bright as the Synagogue begins its ninety-first year.

Special thanks to the late Rose O'Brien and the Lewiston Sun-Journal for the historical and factual information within.

Last Updated : June 1, 2008