An Early History of the Jewish Communities in Lewiston – Auburn, Maine
Regeneration: A Look at the Development of
Lewiston and Auburn’s Jewish Communities
By Timothy C. McCall,
Bates College ‘08,
11 August 2006
Project Supervisor: Phyllis Graber Jensen
Senior Staff Writer and Photographer, Office of Communications and Media Relations,
The following report outlines the early stages of development of the Jewish communities in the twin cities of Lewiston and Auburn, Maine. Located in south-central Maine, on the banks of the Androscoggin River, Lewiston and Auburn have long been home to a thriving textile and shoe manufacturing industry. In many ways, the history of the Jewish community in Lewiston and Auburn is very much entwined with the cities’ economic situation. For that reason, this essay will focus on the influence of the mill industries on the predominantly Jewish small business sector. For many reasons, Jewish settlement in northern New England in general and Maine in particular does not mirror similar patterns seen in other settings on the east coast. In Maine, a state with limited economic opportunities, there was never a large influx of Jewish immigrants, like those seen in Boston or New York City. The communities, even within Maine’s cities, tended to be smaller, closely related, and relatively conservative. This essay will outline Jewish settlement in Maine, the early development of the Jewish communities in Lewiston and Auburn, and the influence of the Jewish faith on the initial settlers.
Since beginning my history major at Bates, I have had the opportunity to study several different cultural and religious communities in the state of Maine. As a Roman Catholic, I have tried to learn as much as I could about the Franco-American community in Maine. Through my course selections, I have taken classes which studied Maine’s Native American communities, the Wabanaki People, and Maine’s coastal communities. I also have taken a religion course where time was spent looking into minority religions in Maine, mainly, African-Americans, Catholics, and Jews. Through all this, I developed an interest in Maine’s different religious and cultural communities. When I saw that the opportunity was available to study the Jewish communities in Lewiston and Auburn, I decided it was the perfect chance to really study a religious and cultural group which is often looked over and which is also quickly disappearing. Over the summer of 2006, I have been able to study the history and become acquainted with some of the characters who make up the Jewish communities in Lewiston and Auburn, and in the process, I have tried to assemble a write-up of the cities’ Jewish history. This essay will examine the early development of the Jewish communities in Lewiston and Auburn and describe it during its “Great Age” in the 1940’s, and discuss its present condition in the 21st century.
Industrialization in Maine has provided the most tangible force in influencing the development of the Jewish community within the state. That trend is particularly evident in the twin cities of Lewiston and Auburn, where textile and shoe manufacturers were the life-blood of the city. As the mills prospered and developed, so too did the Jewish merchants, who operated small stores that catered to the needs of all levels of the mill town’s society. The Jews were very much dependent on the mills for their livelihood and the solvency of their businesses. The first Jewish settlers arrived in the late 1870’s, just as the mills were beginning to shape the economies of many riverside towns and cities of northern New England. The Jewish settlement happened in two distinct waves over a period of 30 years. As these communities developed, they built two separate synagogues and established a Jewish cemetery along with a Jewish Community Center. As the industrial strength of Lewiston changed, the Jews adapted by fostering new industries or they entered professional careers. In its current context, the Jewish community is at a crossroads similar to that of Lewiston and Auburn; while currently the outlook is not optimistic, by looking into the future the hope remains that all the communities in the area undergo a transformation and regeneration.
In order to most effectively study the history and composition of the Jewish communities in Lewiston and Auburn, I utilized the business directories in the “Lewiston Auburn City Directories,” found in the Androscoggin County Historical Society. While not as precise as examining the census list, it was the most effective way to compile data, because it illustrated when the Jewish community was becoming established. The opening of Jewish businesses was a large indicator that the community was becoming established in Lewiston and Auburn. Through examining the Business Directories, I have tried to piece together the most accurate history possible. It is for that reason, that the focus of this essay is on the economic history of the area, and how industrialization, mainly the mills, affected the Jewish population.
The Jewish communities in Lewiston and Auburn were influenced by two immigration movements. The first movement occurred in the 1870’s and it brought a small number of German Jews into the area. This was typical for most urban Jewish communities in the Northeast, the first settlers typically were German Jews, who possessed some marketable skill, arrived with some money, and were often anxious to become accepted members of the middle-class. In Lewiston, the most recognized member of the German Jewish migration was George Ehrenfried. (1) Beginning with Lewiston and Auburn’s first directory in 1872, Ehrenfried is listed as the owner of a “dry and fancy goods” store on Lisbon Street, in Lewiston. In these early directories, there is evidence of other German Jews, such as the J Friedman family , who operated J. Friedman & Company, a “dry and fancy goods” store on Lisbon Street.(2) Of these families, the Ehrenfried family’s enterprise seems to have lasted the longest. As of 1909, twenty-seven years after their first appearance, the Ehrenfried family still appears in the Lewiston and Auburn city directory.(3)
The German Jews followed two noticeable trends in their community building. Due to poor documentation of the early history of the German Jews in Lewiston, I have used the settlement patterns of German Jews in Bangor, Maine, as an example of these two trends. One trend noticeable among German Jews was a strict adherence to religious orthodoxy. In this trend, the German Jews formed their own community within the greater Gentile community in Bangor; however, they did not intermingle much with other communities. They kept to themselves and when economic conditions declined and they left the city, they left no permanent imprints, aside from physical building structures.(4)
A second trend noticeable among German Jews is the desire to rapidly climb to the middle and upper-classes. In this pursuit, they often cast aside the ritualistic, orthodox faith of their ancestors. Often, they shed the “Orthodox insignia of skull caps worn by men and wigs worn by women.” (5) Those Jews that maintained their faith often practiced the less rigorous and less dogmatic Reformed style of Judaism and many others left the faith completely through conversion. The Ehrenfried family in Lewiston, as Paul Gottlieb notes in his history of Lewiston and Auburn’s Jewish population, eventually followed that track, and while they still remain in Lewiston, they are not Jewish.(6) Those Jews, it is noted, “disappeared as Jews, while staying in the city.”(7)
The second wave of Jewish immigration began in the 1880’s and 1890’s. This migration brought a large number of Jews from Russia and Central and Eastern Europe into cities on the east coast of the United States. Eventually, some left the crowded tenements of the big cities and searched for a smaller place where they could settle their family. In some instances they were self-motivated; in other instances the established German Jews, who were fearful that these new-comers would cause a rekindling of the “ever present” fires of “anti-semitism” and that the new immigrants would also threaten the German Jews “hard won status” in the community, worked with the Industrial Removal Board and the United Hebrew Charities to settle the new Jews in small towns away from cities.(8) These circumstances caused some of the more recently arrived Jews to leave the big cities and head for the small cities and mill towns of northern New England.
It is in the late 1880’s that the second wave of Jewish immigrants started to make an impact on the cities of Lewiston and Auburn. For a decade or so, the main Jewish merchants or businessmen in the cities consisted mainly of the Ehrenfried family, the Friedman family, the Greenberg brothers, Joseph Greenburg, the Jacobs family, Isaac Greenberg, and Nathan Greenberg. (9) In 1887, this began to change as new families open new businesses. They also entered occupations which were not previously held by Jews. In 1887, Jacob Kabatchnik opened a new “dry and fancy goods” store at 28 and 34 Chestnut Street. Joseph Goodkowsky established a “dry goods” store at 171 Lisbon Street. The Epstein and Goodkowsky family opened a “Boots and Shoes” store, as did Arthur S. Melcher , who operated a “Boots and Shoes” store and “Boot and Shoemakers and Repairers” Company at 81 Lisbon Street. Mr. S. A. Isaacson opened a clothing store at 152 Lisbon Street. This list continued to grow in Lewiston, with a great many stores and businesses located on Lisbon Street, and soon encompassed department stores; junk peddlers; candy, confectionary, and fruit stores; clothing stores; ladies furnishing goods; haberdasheries; and restaurants, among other things.
For reasons I am not aware of, commercial development in the Auburn Jewish community seemed to lag ten years behind the Lewiston community. It was not until the mid-1890s that Jewish businesses began to appear in the city directories in Auburn. In 1896, the Shapiro family, which would later be one of the more prominent families in the Auburn community, appeared for the first time in the Auburn city directory. The Shapiro family operated a department store under the title “Shapiro Brothers” at 63 Broad Street. (10) This enterprise later occupied buildings from 63 to 69 Broad Street in Auburn. As the mills began to develop and prosper into the early twentieth century, the Jewish merchants began to see their investments in Lewiston and Auburn mature and benefit them.
Soon several landmarks appeared which helped create a sense of permanency in the Jewish community. There was a Jewish baker in Auburn and kosher butchers in both Lewiston and Auburn. Also, in the 1898 to 1899 Directory, in the “Churches” section, a “Hebruex Synagogue” is referred to at 70 Second Street in Auburn, with Mr. I.B. Isaacson serving as president. In Lewiston, there is a “Jewish Synagogue” listed at 36 Chestnut Street, with Mr. Simon Segal listed as “rabbi.” (11) The two oldest synagogues in Lewiston and Auburn both appear for the first time, under their current or recognized names in the 1912 to 1913 Directory. Beth Jacob, the Lewiston synagogue and predecessor to Temple Shalom Synagogue Center, currently the largest synagogue in the two cities, appears as “Bath Jacob Congregation” with a “Rev. Simon Segal” listed as “pastor” and Beth Abraham, the Auburn synagogue, is listed as “Brith Abraham Congregation” with a “Rev. Miah Levinson” listed as “pastor.” (12) In addition, the two synagogues established a cemetery in 1933, currently known as Beth Israel Cemetery, which is first noted as the “Jewish Cemetery” on Old Danville Road in Auburn. (13) With the development of these institutions, in particular the synagogues, the Jewish communities in Lewiston and Auburn became more established.
The prosperity of the mills and the economic advantages they brought to Lewiston greatly influenced the development of the Jewish community. The four mills which dominated the industrial landscape of Lewiston and Auburn were the Bates Mill, the Hill Mill, the Continental Mills, and the Androscoggin Mills. The Jews had limited direct interaction with the mills. In general, the mills were seen as a stepping stone for the Jewish community: a source of temporary work until enough money could be saved to purchase or start a small business. Jews were eager to become self-employed because it offered them a chance to escape from the demanding and often dangerous work in the mills, but more importantly self-employment allowed them to take Saturday, the Sabbath day, off from work, which was a requirement of the Orthodox Judaism practiced by many of the early settlers.14 However, the thousands of workers in the mills served as customers at the businesses operated by the Jews, so it was very much in the interests of the Jewish shop owners to make sure the mills remained profitable and productive, so that they continued to have paying consumers.
The two large events which did have a profound affect on the Jewish community in the twentieth century were economic issues. In the 1940’s, a new business took hold along the Androscoggin River. In addition to the textile mills, shoe factories opened up in Lewiston and Auburn. These factories, however, were not owned by local families. While the owners were primarily Jewish, they came from Boston, Lawrence, Lowell, and Haverhill, Massachusetts. Maine had an abundance of Franco-Americans who would work cheaply. These industrialists built up another profitable and successful industry in Lewiston and Auburn. Among the most successful of the factory owners was Philip Lown, who operated Philip Lown Shoe Factory on the corner of Washington and Court Streets in Auburn.(15) These wealthy factory owners, coupled with the established and financially secure class of merchants and professionals, who composed a bulk of the areas Jewish population, created a Jewish community which was very active in both religious and social affairs.
The Jewish Community Center , located on College Street in Lewiston, provided a home for the religious and social affairs of both the Lewiston and Auburn communities. Built in 1950, the Center was home to both Beth Jacob’s and Beth Abraham’s religious education schools and provided the Jewish community with an arena to raise awareness about issues facing the Jewish community both locally and internationally.16 Locally, events were held to foster relationships with Jewish communities throughout the state and within the two cities. These took the forms of dances, social gatherings, and sports competition. For many years, a highlight of the local sports calendar was the high-school basketball shoot-out contest sponsored by the Jewish Community Center, where Lewiston High School, Auburn’s Edward Little High School and Saint Dominic’s High School, in Auburn, would all send contestants over to the Jewish Community Center to vie for the championship. At a time when Jews were not welcomed in country clubs, social clubs and club sports teams, the Jewish Community Center provided a location where Jews could “act out American social pastimes” as well as provide an alternative area for social gatherings. A much anticipated annual social gathering was the New Year’s Ball held at the Jewish Community Center.(17) To highlight international concerns, events were held to sell bonds for Israel and raise relief for victims of the Holocaust. The Lewiston and Auburn Jewish communities were recognized for their generosity towards Israel on several occasions; this recognition often took the form of visits from top Israeli diplomatic and military figures, including General Yitzhak Rabin.18 In addition to community outreach and promotion of Jewish issues, the Jewish Community Center served as a support structure for the Jewish community, especially to help ward off anti-semitic attacks.19 The success of the Jewish Community Center in highlighting issues facing the Jewish community was due to the generous support it received from the wealthy industrialists, merchants and professionals who composed a bulk of Jewish population in the area.
The second economic event which impacted the Jewish communities in Lewiston and Auburn was the transformation of the mill industry. The transformation crippled the Jewish population in the same ways that it crippled the state. As the textile industry developed in the South and overseas, the owners of the mills in Lewiston, ownership had long past local control and as of 1970 most mills were controlled by corporations centered in New York City, saw an opportunity: new mills with non-unionized labor. This was double bonus: instead of paying for costly renovations to improve their existing mills in Maine and New England, the textile industry could just shift its base of operation into the south or overseas. In addition, the work force in both locations would work for less money then the workers in New England.(20) At the same time that the textile mills were shifting their bases of operation, the shoe factories in the area also began to move or close down. The absence of both these industries has left a noticeable dent in the Lewiston and Auburn area. For the Jewish merchants, the closures meant their loyal customers were without jobs and without disposable income.
Despite the set-backs caused by the mills closures, the Jewish community has survived. There still is a noticeable Jewish professional community in Lewiston and Auburn, particularly active in the legal field. Isaacson & Brann has been operating in Lewiston for 80 years, and Phil Isaacson, of Isaacson & Raymond, also in Lewiston, is the longest practicing attorney in the state of Maine, with over 50 years of legal experience. The Lifshitz family, also known as the Lee family, owns a colossal car dealership in Auburn. Dr. Bezhad Fackery is a leading general surgeon at Saint Mary’s General Hospital and one of a number of Jewish physicians in the area. Bates College and the presence of two major hospitals, Saint Mary’s and Central Maine Medical Center, along with state and federal agencies help serve as job sources which help bring new Jewish families into the area. While the community is presently in a state of decline, it is premature to declare it dead. As Lewiston and Auburn continue to transition into the next stage of their history after the mills, they may find a niche market which will in turn help bring a new age of development and growth for the Jewish community.
As a matter of fact, given its present condition, a large portion of the Jewish community in Lewiston and Auburn is an older and aging population. Given those present circumstances, one of the focal points in the Jewish community is the Jewish cemetery, Beth Israel. In order to fully connect with the Jewish community, I decided to make a trip out to the cemetery in Rowe’s Corner, in Auburn. My experience there was very moving. First, I got to make a connection with the community. Seeing names on headstones added a dimension of reality and existence to the names which I had previously only seen in the City Directories, or heard about in interviews. Second, it illustrated that no matter how far people had strayed from Lewiston and Auburn, they still considered this home and many people who had moved away desired that their final resting place be the tranquil cemetery located in Auburn’s bucolic country-side. The final and most rewarding and most satisfying aspect of the visit was that the cemetery was well maintained and visited. As per Jewish tradition, when you visit the grave of a loved one, you leave a pebble on the headstone. Almost all the grave sites had pebbles placed on them, showing that people still are remembering the dead and what life had been like. So long as those memories survive and are preserved, which is one of the principle goals of this project, the Jewish communities in Lewiston and Auburn will never be forgotten and it will not be impossible for a new renaissance of Jewish culture to occur in central Maine.
Goldstein, Judity S. Crossing Lines: Histories of Jews and Gentiles in Three Communities. New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc., 1992. This historiography covers the development of Jewish communities in Bangor, Mt. Desert Island, and Calais. Of particular interest, were the developments of Jewish communities in Bangor and Calais. Due to the lack of early history on the Lewiston/Auburn Jewish communities, by looking at the development of Jewish communities in small towns and small cities, I gained a basic understanding of how Jewish communities were formed in Maine.
Gottlieb, Paul. “The Lewiston, Maine Jewish Community: A People in Transition.” This paper is useful, but it has a number of flaws. First, no date is given, so there is no way to ascertain when it was written, aside from events mentioned in the paper. Second, the author does not disclose his sources of information. While he gives a list of the sources he used for interviews, when he cites the interviews, he cites them as “Personal Information” or “Private Interviews,” so it is very hard to verify his sources.
Guberman, Jayne K., Editor. In Our Own Voices A Guide to Conducting Life History Interviews with American Jewish Women. Bookline, MA: Jewish Women’s Archive, 2005. This booklet is a guide to conducting oral interviews for oral history projects and contains several essays which discuss different interviewing topics. While the focus is on Jewish women, the topics, for the most part, are broad enough that they can be applied to Jewish communities throughout the United States. The booklet also contains hundred of sample questions for conducting interviews.
Haley, Benjamin, History s40 Paper: “A brief history of Jewish businesses and employment in Lewiston and Auburn.” Muskie Archives, Bates College, Lewiston, ME. This paper looks at the economic development of the Jewish community in Lewiston and Auburn. It was primarily looked at to evaluate and analyze its sources.
Kolack, Shirley. A New Beginning: The Jews of Historic Lowell, Massachusetts . New York: Peter Lang, 1997. While not specifically on Jewish communities in Maine, this historiography of Lowell, Massachusetts thoroughly outlines the development of a Jewish community in northern New England and the challenges faced by those communities. It offers a template for the development that was happening up in Maine.
Leamon, James S. Historic Lewiston: A Textile City in Transition. Auburn, ME: Lewiston Historical Commission, 1976. This book looks at the history of Lewiston, particularly the history of the mills in the city. I used it to match what was occurring in the Jewish community to what was occurring in the greater city community.
Marshall, Kate, History s40 Paper: “Searching for the history of Jews in Lewiston and Auburn, Maine: examining what limited resources reveal about local mid-20th century Jewish community organizing.” Muskie Archives, Bates College, Lewiston, ME This paper gives some insight into the 20th century history of the Jewish populations in Lewiston/Auburn. It was also looked at for the sources used.
Skinner, Ralph. Historically Speaking on Lewiston-Auburn Maine Churches. Twin City Printery: Lewiston, ME, 1965. This book offers some helpful background information on the formation of Beth Abraham synagogue in Auburn,ME, Beth Jacob Synagogue in Lewiston, ME, and Beth Israel Cemetery in Rowe’s Corner, Auburn, ME. Unfortunately the author does not provide any footnotes or endnotes, so it is very difficult ascertain what he used for sources. Also, the book is very dated; it stops its coverage in 1964, so there is no discussion of the establishment of Temple Shalom and the Temple Shalom Synagogue Center in Auburn, ME.
Androscoggin County Historical Society, Auburn City Hall, Auburn, ME. Of particular interest were the city directories, dating back to at least 1872. I gained a bulk of my information from these sources, in particular, the business directories. They gave insight as to when different Jewish merchants were opening new businesses in the area.
Auburn Public Library While not examined, or used, there is the potential that there is information there regarding the foundation of Auburn’s Jewish community and Beth Abraham synagogue.
Beth Israel Cemetery, Rowe’s Corner, Auburn, ME. Any history of the Jewish communities in Lewiston and Auburn would not be complete with-out a visit to Beth Israel cemetery. It is beautifully maintained and allows researchers to see graves of some of the earliest Jewish settlers in the two cities. Either Temple Shalom Synagogue Center or Beth Abraham Synagogue should be contacted prior to visiting the cemetery.
Lewiston Public Library The Maine Room of the Lewiston Public Library has a great deal of information on local history; including a number of papers written by Bates College students, who were Jewish, who came from Lewiston and Auburn, and attended the college in the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s.
Muskie Archives, Bates College The Muskie Archives have a number of shorter papers written more recently by History Majors, who were taking the Introduction to Historical Methods Short Term class. They deal with a number of issues the local Jewish population has faced or is currently facing.
Temple Shalom Synagogue Center Temple Shalom has a large collection of photo albums and framed pictures which cover from the 1950’s on-wards. It is not known if Beth Abraham possesses a similar collection or whether someone in the Beth Abraham Congregation possesses it.
- Lewiston and Auburn Directory, (Boston: Greenough and Jones & Co, 1872), Androscoggin County Historical Society, Androscoggin County Building, Auburn, ME, pg. 44.
- Lewiston and Auburn Directory, (Boston: Greenough and Jones & Co, 1872), pg. 48.
- Directory of Androscoggin County, 1908-1909, Androscoggin County Historical Society, Androscoggin County Building, Auburn, ME., pg. 908.
- Judith S. Goldstein, Crossing Lines: Histories of Jews and Gentiles in Three Communities, (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1992), 44.
- Judith S. Goldstein, Crossing Lines: Histories of Jews and Gentiles in Three Communities, (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1992), 61.
- Paul H. Gottlieb, “The Lewiston, Maine Jewish Community: A People in Transition,” 4.
- Goldstein, 45.
- Shirley Kolack, A New Beginning: The Jews of Historic Lowell, Massachusetts (New York, Peter Long, 1997), 7.
- 1880 Lewiston Auburn Directory, 173, 174, and 175.
- 1895-96 Androscoggin County Directory, 793.
- Turner’s Androscoggin Directory 1898-1899, 968-969.
- Directory of Androscoggin County Maine 1912-1913, (Merrill & Webber: Auburn, ME, 1914), pgs. 1056-1057.
- Manning’s Lewiston and Auburn Turner and Webster Directory For Year Beginning May 1933, Auburn, ME., pg. 824.
- Shirley Kolack, A New Beginning: The Jews of Historic Lowell, Massachusetts, (New York: Peter Lang, 1997), 9.
- Irving Isaacson, Senior Partner, Isaacson & Brann Law Firm, Lewiston, ME, 14 July 2006.
- Ralph Skinner, Historically Speaking on Lewiston-Auburn Maine Churches, (Twin City Printery, Lewiston, ME: 1965), 138-139.
- Kate Marshall, History s40 Paper, “Searching for the History of Jews in Lewiston and Auburn, Maine: examining what limited resources reveal about local mid-20th Century Jewish community organizing.” Muskie Archives, Bates College, Lewiston, ME.
- Hear Young General, Lewiston Daily Sun – Lewiston Auburn, 17 December 1957.
- Kate Marshall, History s40 Paper: “Searching for the History of Jews in Lewiston and Auburn, Maine: examining what limited resources reveal about local mid-20th Century Jewish community organizing.” Muskie Archives, Bates College, Lewiston, ME.
- James S. Leamon, Historic Lewiston: A Textile City in Transition, (Lewiston Historical Commission: Auburn, ME, 1976), 42-43.
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