Thank you, Berney.
I consider myself a “grandson” of this congregation.
Now, I was raised in New Hampshire, and I’m very proud of that.
I do confess to taking sides when the UNH Wildcats face off against the UMaine Black Bears, so I hope you’ll all forgive me.
But, I also consider myself a son of Maine, and of Bangor, for so much of our family history is tied to this state and this city.
I believe the first members of our family arrived here in the 1880s, about the time Beth Israel was founded. And family members have lived continuously in Bangor for that entire period.
After he left Maine, my grandfather spent every summer in Bayside, outside Belfast. And, as a young boy, my sisters and I spent summers there, as well.
My Uncle Lonnie and Aunt Sylvia, and Marcia and Debbie always lived here. My Uncle Jack and his family lived for many years in Portland.
My mother was always a devoted Bangorian – and very devoted to this community. Indeed, I remember her making the trip to Bangor for the 75th anniversary of Beth Israel, and the 50th anniversary of this building, and her bringing home the commemorative book marking the event. She spoke of this community frequently, and I listened intently.
When he arrived in Bangor at the end of the 19th century, my grandfather, Abraham J. Berson, became a peddler in the outlying areas of this city. He was the president of the synagogue when this building was being constructed.
I always heard so much about the family home at #234 York Street, just up the street from where we’re meeting this evening. I heard about their six cows and how my uncles would take them down to the pasture in Brewer.
I heard about blueberry picking in Hampden.
And then, I heard all the Bangor Jewish family names: the Striars, the Epsteins, the Lipskys, the Pauls….and so many others.
I knew about the Abraham Lincoln School, which my mother attended. I heard about the great Bangor fire of 1911; my mother called it “the great conflagration.” She even talked about standing up here on York Street and looking out over the downtown as the fire raged.
And, of course, I heard about Bangor High School, and about her classmates. She would occasionally take out a copy of The Oracle, and would point out the seven or eight Jews in her class. Though I never met any of them, I really felt I knew them personally.
On March 10, 1913, the Bangor Daily Commercial ran a lengthy article on the dedication of Beth Israel Synagogue. It included mention of two young persons, a boy, Arthur Lipsky, and a girl, Rose Berson, who addressed the congregation and guests who had gathered the day before.
The girl, then 12 years old, was my mother.
I’d like to share with you the short speech she gave, because it says much about how Jews viewed the world then – and today. It also speaks to the strong Jewish identity this congregation had then – and today:
“Mr. Chairman, Ladies and gentlemen:
You will undoubtedly wonder at my audacity to appear before you this afternoon, but perhaps the fact that I stand before you as a representative of an organization will answer the wonder that has arisen in your mind.
I see that when I mentioned the word “organization.” But nevertheless a society does exist which dares to call itself “The Young Maccabeans.” The aims of this society are of vital interest to you as well as to us. Its members try to enthuse themselves that noble spirit which animated the Maccabeans. We look upon the synagogue as our fortress and the pillar of Judaism. Our purpose is to help once more uplift the Hebrew flag without wishing in any way to detract from the greatness of, or letting it affect our allegiance to, the Stars and Stripes.
We hope to make ourselves deserving of the greatness of our ancestors and worthy of taking our place as standard bearers for our nation.
Accept, Mr. Chairman, our heartiest wishes at this dedication, which to us means so much, and rest assured that this new synagogue will find in us true supporters when we shall be called upon, in years to come to do our share.”
This speech, and the dedication, and the dedication of the synagogue, took place only 16 years after Theodor Herzl called the First Zionist Congress, and 35 years before the establishment of the State of Israel. The strong support for the dream and goals of Zionism, and the patriotism to, what was for many in the congregation, a new home in a new land, clearly speaks to the strong beliefs and values of the founders of this building, its congregants, and the entire Jewish community of Bangor.
(Indeed, when I was in graduate school, I did research on The Maccabean, the magazine of the Federation of American Zionists, published in the early years of the Zionist movement. At the back of each issue, there was a city-by-city listing of contributors to the Zionist movement; amidst the major cities listed, as one would expect, were Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and others. They were listed alphabetically: right before Boston came Bangor, which month after month listed the donations of eight or nine leaders of this community, many of them leaders of this synagogue).
I have always known of the rich Jewish life which has existed in this city from its earliest days. I say that not to flatter you, but because it’s true.
As a New Englander, with roots in Maine and New Hampshire, I know how difficult it is to do this. I was raised in Keene, New Hampshire. For years, we used to explain that Keene had “25 Jewish families in a 25 mile radius.” It is larger now, but so is the Keene area. In other words, it’s still difficult to face the challenge of living in such lovely surroundings and trying the best you can to maintain active Jewish life and a Jewish identity.
This isn’t just a question faced by small Jewish communities in the United States. I see this in many places I travel to overseas.
Not too long ago I visited Slovenia, whose Jewish community numbers 150. Services are held, once a month, in a converted 18th century tobacco warehouse. Once a month, a rabbi comes in from Trieste, Italy to conduct services. And in the trunk of his car are boxes of kosher food for the Kiddush after services on Shabbat. I’ve rarely enjoyed a Shabbat lunch as much as I did in Ljubljana, the country’s capital city.
Three weeks ago, I was in Turkey. The Jewish community in Istanbul is about 20,000 – but the population of the greater Istanbul area is somewhere around 12 million – and 98% Muslim. The community is an old one – dating back more than 500 years. It once numbered 150,000, but in the late forties and early fifties tens of thousands moved to Israel.
That said, it is one of the best organized Jewish communities I have ever visited: many synagogues, schools, a museum, a Jewish home for the elderly – even a Jewish hospital. On a Friday night, I celebrated Shabbat with 75 or so persons, including many children and young adults. I was asked if I’d like to recite the Kiddush, and I was immediately reminded of all of the things that unite us as Jews, no matter where we live or where we visit. With the Sea of Marmara off in the distance, in the warm air of a late August evening, sitting on the roof of a Jewish community center, I truly felt at home in a strange city.
This summer, I was also in Buenos Aires, Argentina, home to nearly 200,000 Jews. There are many Jewish institutions in the city, which has a rich immigrant tradition not unlike ours here in the United States. I was there for a B’nai B’rith conference on anti-Semitism, co-sponsored with the Argentine Foreign Affairs Council. Yes, we discussed anti-Semitism in Argentina, but most of the discussion centered on anti-Semitism elsewhere, indeed in Europe, in North America, in the Middle East. All of us are facing the same threats and challenges, wherever we live.
But that’s not the only memory I have of my visit. Across the street from my hotel, some investors had taken the old central fruit and vegetable market for Buenos Aires and created a marvelous indoor shopping mall. That wouldn’t be interesting by itself – shopping malls are part of the global village in which we live. Something else caught my eye on the way out – it was a mezuzah on the doorpost of one of the 10 or so doors leading in and out of the building. I asked later about the folks who built the project and yes, you guessed it, they were Jewish. The percentage of Jewish shoppers frequently that mall is tiny. But it was important enough to the developers to maintain their identity in some way, in a city of 8 million people -- and the mezuzah just made good sense.
Well, that brings me back to Bangor. 120 years is a long stretch of time, by any standard. Symbolically, it’s our most important number, the amount of years that Moses lived. “Tzu a hundert und tzvantzik” -- to a 120 – is just about the nicest thing you can say in wishing friends and relatives the very best.
Now that we live in an age of longevity, we’re beginning to say: “To a 120 and beyond ,” which certainly is a value-added wish.
In terms of American Jewish communities, 120 years is a long time. Jews have lived on the North American continent for just over 350 years; my organization, B’nai B’rith will celebrate its 165th anniversary this October. The Bangor Jewish community’s roots reach back almost as long.
Over the period of 120 years much has happened in this country, and in this world. Over the past couple of generations, American Jews – though we’ve not really grown much overall – have become a highly mobile people. We’re no longer so heavily concentrated in the Northeast; if you haven’t looked lately, cities like Atlanta, Houston and San Diego have substantial Jewish communities. Even New York’s Jewish community has changed; as thousands moved to the suburbs or other parts of the country, hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews took their place – and have changed the face of New York Jewry in the process.
Your community, and your synagogue have, through all of these demographic and social changes, maintained your identity, your strength, and your respected place in this city.
Over the years, new families have joined those who’ve been here for well over a century. New leadership has been developed. You, like Jews the world over – in Keene, New Hampshire, in Slovenia and Turkey and Buenos Aires – are coping with new challenges; the number of distractions offered to our young people today are immense. In a world where concentration spans are 20 minutes, and where You Tube and Facebook command the attention of 11 year olds, what is a community to do?
Don’t get me wrong: anti-Semitism is still any issue we confront every day, sometimes crude, and sometimes sophisticated. It’s a battle in which my organization is deeply, and actively, involved.
But generally wider acceptance in our society, assimilation, and the pull of so many distractions and attractions to our daily routine and that of our children, makes being Jewish, and staying Jewishly organized in an effective manner, that much more difficult.
The good news is, that a strong Jewish community like yours is well equipped to provide the answers. In Bangor, as in Keene, tremendous responsibility falls on community leaders, parents, grandparents, Hebrew school teachers and others to provide the Jewish reinforcement unavailable outside the home, and I’m sure many of you do just that.
Important programs like Birthright – which sends college- age- plus young people to Israel on subsidized trips – have been a big help in bringing about that kind of positive reinforcement. Israel will remain the glue that binds us all as Jews, wherever we live.
This is all vital to our existence not only here in Bangor but globally, since there are so few of us: the Olympics have just ended in Beijing, and I was reminded that there are less Jews in the world today than there are people living in Shanghai.
That means, to use a clichéd saying in this election year, that “every vote counts.” That is, each of us has a responsibility to make a contribution to insuring that the next generation of American Jews is able to not only carry on the rituals and traditions of our people, but knows why we do. Indeed, that’s the hardest part in an assimilated world: conveying to our young people why the history, the struggles, the triumphs and tragedies of this people small in numbers, carried out over a continuum of thousands of years, over three quarters of this globe, are worth remembering, and why our traditions are worth preserving – and cherishing.
Congregation Beth Israel, over its 120 years, has passed this test – over a succession of generations. I’m proof of that, as are my cousins sitting here today, as are so many others – so many thousands of persons who have been associated with your community over the years. This is an unending task, this issue of Jewish continuity. Your celebration of 120 years of vibrant and active Jewish life is the best indicator that this synagogue will continue to fulfill its role as a vital religious and social institution making a Jewish difference in people’s lives. As an institution, and as members of this community who support it, there can be no higher calling.
On behalf of my wife and me, I wish you all “Chazak v’Amatz” -- may you go from to strength to strength – for the next 120 years – and beyond!
Last Updated : Oct 27, 2011