BANGOR, Maine — Congregation Beth Israel is as old as Moses.
The state’s oldest Jewish house of worship will celebrate its 120th anniversary at 7 p.m. Sunday with a sneak peek at a documentary made by one of its newer members.
Most organizations celebrate birthdays and mark anniversaries every 25 years. Beth Israel produced a detailed written history for its centennial.
Because Moses, the man who led his people out of slavery in Egypt, lived to be 120, celebrating 12 decades in Bangor seemed right, according to Cindy Kubetz, who helped plan Sunday’s event.
The anniversary also gave the synagogue a reason to implement a 10-year-old idea — creating an oral history of the shul, Kubetz said Thursday. That led to the idea of the 45-minute film.
Kubetz, a lifelong resident of Bangor, didn’t know much about the impact Jews had in the community before she converted to Judaism more than 20 years ago when she married Bernard Kubetz, the current synagogue president.
“When I first came to the synagogue, I didn’t know the background or the history of the people who worshipped there,” she said. “For many in the Greater Bangor community, the idea of a Jewish community was a bit foreign perhaps. But when I became involved and converted and got to know the people, it really become a very comfortable place for both myself and my family. It was easy to get behind such a great history and support the oral history and film projects.”
Rachel Wiseman, 18, of Bangor has spent more than six months interviewing many of the synagogue’s oldest members and going through old photographs at the Bangor Public Library, the Bangor Museum and History Center and members’ family albums to create the film. Brandon Gassett, 21, of Parsonsfield and a student at New England School of Communication in Bangor, has assisted her.
“The biggest challenge,” Wiseman, a 2007 graduate of Bangor High School, said last month, “has been to document recent history and to look at things I witnessed through the eyes of a historian. Our shul in the last 20 years has become fully egalitarian [with men and women sharing equal liturgical responsibilities]. That is a monumental change from when only men could conduct services and women sat separately in the balcony. To isolate the events that led to those changes has been difficult.”
The then-Orthodox synagogue was founded by a group of young men in October 1888 with the formation of the Beth Israel Society. The men were European immigrants who eked out a living as peddlers and shopkeepers in a booming lumber town, according to the centennial history book published in 1988.
Beth Israel’s first synagogue on Center Street was destroyed in the 1911 fire that leveled much of the city’s downtown. The current building on York Street was built in 1913 and expanded in the 1990s. The congregation joined the Conservative Movement in the 1970s as the role of women in society was changing dramatically.
Wiseman, who moved to Bangor six years ago with her parents, Drs. Penny Lamhut and Alan Wiseman, said working on the film and the oral history project had been an “enriching” experience.
“Doing this has helped me get in touch with my Jewish identity,” said Rachel Wiseman, who will begin her freshman year at the University of Chicago this month. “It’s easy for Jewish kids in my generation to not connect with our religious and ethnic past because we are so assimilated compared to our grandparents.”
Kubetz said the film and the oral histories would be archived at the synagogue, the library, the historical society and other appropriate places. The documentary will be available later this month on DVD.
“The film takes us back to the beginning of not just Jews coming to Bangor,” Kubetz said, “but shows how life was at the turn of the 19th century for most Mainers. We want to preserve how our founders found ways to support themselves and their families and found a way to pray together.”
Speakers at Sunday’s event will include Daniel Marischin of B’nai Brith International and Norman Minsky, who was president of the congregation in 1988. Soprano Deborah Cook Marlowe, the synagogue’s former cantor, along with pianist Phillip Silver and cellist Noreen Silver will perform.
Rabbi Steven Schwarzman, the synagogue’s new spiritual leader, will be installed during the celebration.
For more information, call the synagogue at 945-3433