BANGOR, Maine - Rabbi Steven Schwarzman joked in his new office last week that he didn’t know there were any Jews in Maine before he learned Congregation Beth Israel was searching for a new spiritual leader.
Schwarzman, 47, became the spiritual leader on July 1 to about 150 of the state’s Jewish families when he began his new job at Bangor’s only Conservative synagogue.
“He is knowledgeable, he is compassionate, he is thoughtful,” synagogue President Bernard “Berney” Kubetz said of Schwarzman. “He has a wonderful sense of humor and is perfect for our congregation. From my perspective as president — he’ s a mench.”
A mench, according to “The Joys of Yiddish,” is “an upright, honorable, decent person.”
Beth Israel, the state’ s oldest continuous synagogue, had been without a spiritual leader for more than a year but continued to hold services, according to Kubetz. Rabbi David Cantor left Bangor last spring after six years at Beth Israel for a bigger congregation and larger Jewish community in Rhode Island.
Schwarzman, along with Bettina, his wife of 23 years and the couple’ s four children, ages 10 to 19, are settling into a house within walking distance of the York Street synagogue. Beth Israel is located across the street from the city’ s Orthodox synagogue, Beth Abraham. Congregation Beth El, a Reform synagogue is located on French Street.
The three rabbis gather most mornings for prayer and study. That, according to Schwarzman is very unusual and most likely would not happen in big cities with large Jewish populations.
Schwarzman grew up in a Reform congregation in Alexandria, Va., and did his undergraduate work at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and earned his master’ s degree at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He graduated in May from Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.
Before attending rabbinical school, Schwarzman worked as a technical writer for a computer software company. So, when it came time to evaluate the two dozen or so Conservative synagogues looking for rabbi, he made a spreadsheet to compare various attributes.
“A number of things stood out about this congregation,” Schwarzman said. “First, it has the highest percentage of the membership who actually attend services on a weekly basis of all the synagogues I looked at, by far.
“That’ s a very good thumbnail measure of what the synagogue is about,” he continued. “Really, it’ s a driven congregation. They didn’ t have a rabbi for an entire year and they managed on their own. I think that’ s very impressive.”
Kubetz said that Beth Israel has between 135 and 145 member units and between 40 and 65 people on average attend Sabbath services each week. About 75 members attended Schwarzman’ s first service on July 5, he said.
Mandi Odier-Fink, 38, of Bangor was one of two members of the congregation who went to New York to meet rabbinical candidates including Schwarzman. An attorney in Bangor, she has lived in Maine and been a member of Beth Israel about four years.
“He was far and away my favorite candidate,” she said earlier this week. “He’ s incredibly warm and charismatic. He has a lot of life experience and that was attractive to us. We are an aging congregation and an important part of our rabbi’ s job is serving our older members. His life experience will help him fill that role.”
Attracting a rabbi to Bangor, however, is no easy task, Kubetz said.
“The challenges begin and end with location and lifestyle versus the opportunity to be part of larger Jewish community on the East Coast,” he said. “Bangor, Maine, is sort of remote to New York, where the greatest concentration of Jews and Jewish activities are.”
Schwarzman said that after five years in New York while he was studying, he and his family were ready for a smaller community with far fewer big city problems. While his children have in attended Jewish day schools in the past, they will attend Bangor public schools.
His oldest child, Dan, 19, will attend Vassar College in the fall. His daughters Rachel, 16, and Yael, 12, along with younger son, Hillel, 10, have been welcomed by the children of the congregation, the rabbi said.
“It’ s the friendliest congregation I saw of the two dozen I considered,” the rabbi said.
Schwarzman said that his first goal as the spiritual leader of Beth Israel is “to find out what the goals are.” To that end, he has invited every individual and family to meet with him.
“I want to find out what’ s going on in their lives as people and as Jews, what they want to learn, how they want to grow, what they want to see happen in the synagogue, what they don’ t want to see happen,” he said.
So far, these conversations have been powerful for the new rabbi, who learned how to run services, write and deliver sermons and conduct rituals in rabbinical school but had little interaction with congregants.
“As a recent seminary graduate, for five years I was imagining what that would be like, but this is where the rubber meets the road,” Schwarzman said. “Actually sitting together and inviting them to open themselves up and pour out their hearts — and they do — is a sacred moment. I have discovered in the past two weeks just how sacred that moment is and how blessed I am to be able to help these people express what they need to express.”