Short history of the Jewish community of Rumford

The early Jewish inhabitants of Rumford were primarily merchants of all kinds, but particularly clothiers. The most prominent among the earliest Jewish haberdashers was Harold Marx, who opened his first clothing store in Rumford in 1890. Charles Israelson and Benjamin Schwind soon followed after the turn of the 20th century with the opening of their own clothing businesses.

No history of the Rumford Jewish community is complete without an acknowledgment of the importance of the Oxford Paper Company to the Rumford economy. Hugh Chisholm founded the paper mill, which began producing paper in 1901. It was responsible for transforming a sleepy little agricultural town into a booming industrial community. Thousands of new workers migrated to Rumford for construction jobs while the mill was being built and then later as plant workers making the paper products. The new workers needed the goods that the Jewish merchants provided, and the years immediately following the turn of the century saw a rapid increase in the number of Jewish inhabitants in Rumford.

The earliest reference to a Jewish house of worship dates back to 1898 to the Temple Israel Congregation. At its peak in the 1920s, the Rumford Jewish community probably numbered no more than 20 or 30 families. So the Temple Israel Congregation could not afford to purchase a building to house the congregation nor employ a rabbi to conduct regular Shabat services. However, High Holy Day services conducted by itinerant rabbis from other east coast locations or by rabbinical students were held annually in temporary facilities, most notably the Knights of Pythias Hall on Canal St. These rabbis included Rabbi Charles Arik of Bath, Rabbi Minkes of New York City, and Rabbi Samuel Langer of New York City.

In spite of the relatively small number of Rumford Jewish families, the Temple Israel Congregation eventually was able to secure funding to purchase an old schoolhouse on Penobscot St. in November 1935. Interestingly enough, the schoolhouse, whose original location was on Franklin St., had previously been the meeting place of many denominations of other religious faiths, including Methodist, Universalist, Baptist, and Catholic. After an extensive renovation period, the Temple Israel Congregation proudly celebrated the start of the Jewish year 5697 in the little schoolhouse on September 17, 1936, with Rabbi Goldstein of Old Orchard conducting Rosh Hashana services. The congregation housed in the little synagogue on Penobscot St. still was not able to afford a full time rabbi, but they managed to have services conducted on High Holy Days. And weddings and Bar Mitzvahs were conducted there, most notably by Rabbi Norman Zdanowitz of Beth Abraham Synagogue in Auburn.

Mill towns like Rumford are heavily dependent on the economic vitality of their sole industry for their own success. The Great Depression hit the Maine paper industry severely. At the depths of the Depression, the Oxford Paper Company was in production for only several days a week, instead of the normal six. The mill workers were hit hard, which in turn made it difficult for many of the smaller businesses operated by Jewish merchants. They looked for opportunities in larger communities further south, like the Lewiston and Portland areas. So even while the Jewish community was able to purchase their first building for religious worship, by the late 1930s the community was beginning to dwindle.

While the paper mill was able to recover and thrive in the years leading up to, during, and following World War II, the trend for Jews to migrate from Rumford continued. The children of the more successful Jewish families who went away to college found no economic incentive to return to Rumford. The Jewish community was becoming increasingly older. By 1952, the Temple Israel Congregation included only 5 five Jewish families with children, for a grand total of 9 youths. While Temple Israel never had regular Shabbat services, it was always able to afford a rabbi to conduct High Holy Day services. But by the mid 1950s, even that had become beyond their modest means, and from then forward, High Holy Day services were conducted by the congregation members themselves. This trend only accelerated into the early 1960s when it became difficult to gather a minyan even for High Holy Day services. By the late 1960s only a couple of Jewish families remained and they were forced to sell the little schoolhouse in 1969. The proceeds were donated to the Jewish Home for the Aged in Portland. Joel Nathan (2017)

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page updated : August 5, 2015

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