Despite Maine adage, ‘You can’t get there from here,’ rabbi finds his way to Beth Israel

Posted Aug. 04, 2011, at 6:46 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 05, 2011, at 9:42 p.m.
Rabbi Justin Goldstein, the newly appointed rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Bangor, in his office on Thursday, August 4, 2011. The conservative synagogue is Bangor's oldest synagogue.
Rabbi Justin Goldstein, the newly appointed rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Bangor, in his office on Thursday, August 4, 2011. The conservative synagogue is Bangor's oldest synagogue.
Rabbi Justin Goldstein, the newly appointed rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Bangor, in his office on Thursday, August 4, 2011. The conservative synagogue is Bangor's oldest synagogue.
Rabbi Justin Goldstein, the newly appointed rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Bangor, in his office on Thursday, August 4, 2011. The conservative synagogue is Bangor's oldest synagogue.

BANGOR, Maine — After climbing Mount Mica in Oxford County eight years ago, Rabbi Justin Goldstein learned two valuable lessons: always listen to your wife and you can’t get there from here.

Goldstein, 30, has been the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel, 144 York St., since July 1. He graduated earlier this year from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

The rabbi and his wife, Danielle Goldstein, climbed Mount Mica, the mountain near Paris best known for its tourmaline mine, on Goldstein’s 22nd birthday, the rabbi told his congregation in a sermon delivered to his congregation last week. He insisted on taking the more difficult route even though his wife did mention to him — at least twice — that she thought they had taken the wrong fork in the path.

Once down from the mountain, the couple bought a pizza and a map at a local gas station. When Goldstein approached some local residents to ask directions, he got the answer native Mainers love to dole out to visitors.

“What a fascinating concept — you can’t get there from here,” he said in his sermon. “Clearly, this gentleman meant quite literally there were not roads from where we were to get us where we wanted to go, not in any practical route anyways. Yet I think there is also a certain spiritual lesson in this statement.

“The question which rises to my mind is: What would it take to get there from here?” he continued. “I do not mean to pose that question in the physical sense of what forests need to be destroyed to build the roads necessary to get from point A to point B. Rather, I mean to say what lessons need to be learned, what habits need to be let go, what perspectives need to shift, what experiences need to have been had before we can comfortably say, I can go there.

“We’ve discovered the truth of the matter, and the fact must be that God is a Mainer,” he continued. “When the Children of Israel set out of Egypt towards the Promised Land, God took an inventory of the people and said, ‘You can’t get there from here.’”

As a youngster, Goldstein did not see himself on a path to the rabbinate, but he always wanted to be a teacher, the rabbi said Thursday. He did not grow up in a religious household in Deerfield, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, but his parents joined a small Conservative synagogue so he could have a bar mitzvah when he turned 13.

While at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., Goldstein translated much of the Book of Genesis from Hebrew and wrote commentary about the social and political events that were taking place when the first book of the Bible was written.

“I thought I was studying to become an archaeologist, spending 10 to 12 hours a day in the library translating, and I stopped believing in what I was writing,” he said. “That’s when I understood the meaning of ‘The truth in the Torah is not in the black letters, it’s in the white spaces between the the black letters.’”

When he began his studies at rabbinical school, Goldstein said that he expected he would end up in an academic setting rather than in a pulpit.

“But I came to the realization that 9 to 5 was not my style and was not going to fulfill me on a spiritual level,” the rabbi said Thursday. “Really, my life’s passion is teaching, and what’s so special about congregational work is the the teaching never ends.”

Goldstein said he was attracted to Beth Israel, founded in 1888, in part because of its deep connection to the Bangor community. He also had fond memories of his visits to Maine, especially after having spent several years in Los Angeles while in rabbinical school.

“There were fake people there,” he said of some of the people he met in California. “Mainers are the salt of the earth. There’s a realness here. People do not change from day to day in how they act.”

Goldstein said that a balance between tradition and change is just what he and Beth Israel see in each other. He also would like the synagogue to become involved in the locally grown food movement in Maine with a community garden sponsored by the congregation. He said Thursday that one of his goals is to participate in a substantive religious dialogue with Muslims and Christians in northern Maine.

“I think the style with which I present our tradition is respectful to our heritage, but I want to inspire people to dig deeper, learn more and get more involved in the study of Torah,” he said. “And I’d like to see our community become more active in the larger community with more cooperation between the three synagogues in Bangor and some interfaith projects.”

Goldstein lives with his wife and their nearly 7-month-old daughter, Naviyah, in Dedham. The rabbi also maintains an apartment in Bangor within walking distance of the shul.

He replaced Rabbi Steven Schwarzman, who now is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Worcester, Mass. He served in Bangor for three years.

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