Forged in horrific fire, ties between All Souls, Beth Israel now 100 years strong

Posted Nov. 22, 2012, at 6:41 p.m.
Congregation Beth Israel, located at 144 York St. in Bangor, as seen in September 2012.
Congregation Beth Israel, located at 144 York St. in Bangor, as seen in September 2012. Buy Photo
Rabbi Justin Goldstein of the Congregation Beth Israel.
Rabbi Justin Goldstein of the Congregation Beth Israel. Buy Photo
Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue is shown in September 1955.
BDN File Photo
Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue is shown in September 1955. Buy Photo
All Souls Congregational Church in Bangor is shown recently.
Judy Long | BDN
All Souls Congregational Church in Bangor is shown recently.
All Souls Congregational Church in Bangor is shown in the 1950s.
BDN File Photo
All Souls Congregational Church in Bangor is shown in the 1950s. Buy Photo
The Rev. James Haddix of All Souls Congregational Church.
Linda Coan O'Kresik
The Rev. James Haddix of All Souls Congregational Church. Buy Photo

BANGOR, Maine — The people who worshipped at First Church and Beth Israel didn’t have a lot in common other than the city in which most of them lived until April 30, 1911.

That was the day the Great Bangor Fire swept through the Queen City. The blaze claimed two lives, six churches, a synagogue, dozens of private residences and 100 business blocks.

This past weekend, the York Street synagogue and the city’s oldest congregation of any faith, at the corner of Broadway and State Street, marked centennials. Congregation Beth Israel, 144 York St., on Saturday observed the 100th anniversary of its dedication. On Sunday, All Souls Congregational Church, 10 Broadway, celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding.

The Rev. Ed Kalish, the deacon in charge at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Waterville, attended Saturday’s event. He was born and raised in the Jewish faith.

“I’m Jewish, so there’s a tremendous resonance here for a Jew,” he said after the event. “It seems to me that in today’s society, it is necessary to maintain a connection with the past and with God without which we cannot survive.”

One hundred years ago, Jews donated money to rebuild the city’s Christian churches and gentiles gave funds for a new synagogue. The relationship became closer during World War II and in the aftermath of the Holocaust, according to church and synagogue records.

More recently, Bangor’s faith community offered support to members of the Jewish community in September when Beth Israel was defaced with swastikas — a symbol that came to represent Nazi Germany and the genocide and oppression of Jews during World War II.

The Torah scrolls and other sacred texts Saturday were carried by Rabbi Justin Goldstein and synagogue leaders into Beth Israel’s sanctuary and placed in the Ark behind a crimson curtain just as they were a century before.

Goldstein said after the service that not long after he was hired in the summer of 2011, he suggested removing the center pew in the front row because he cannot see it or anyone sitting in it. When he mentioned the idea to a congregant, the rabbi was told, “You can’t do that, my grandfather sat in the pew.”

Steve Mogul, a Bangor attorney, understands those sentiments. He grew up in the synagogue.

“This is part of my family,” he said. “People here have known me since I was a baby. I sit in the seat where I sat with my parents as a kid. There is a lot of continuity here.”

Bob Sherman, professor of Christian theology at Bangor Theological Seminary, has attended All Souls for many years. He saw a similar continuity in the role of his church in the Bangor community 100 years ago and in the 21st century.

“I think we will actually need to continue many of the things they did in the early 20th century when there was so much social strain,” he said Sunday. “Then, it was drunkenness. Today, it’s drug problems.”

Sherman said people experience the same spiritual yearning they have had for centuries that can be satisfied by worshipping in community.

On Sunday, members of All Souls — which in 1912 joined First and Central Congregational churches after both were destroyed in the fire — recited the same words that were said on Nov. 30, 1913, when the new building was dedicated. The new church, which cost $110,000 in 1913, used different colored stones from the foundation of Central and First churches.

The church building is modified French Gothic in style, according to information on All Soul’s website. It was constructed of red Magaguadavic granite from St. George, New Brunswick, and Long Beach, Maine.

“The glory of the latter house shall be greater than of the former, saith the Lord of Hosts: and in this place I give peace, saith the Lord of Hosts,” the more than 300 people who attended Sunday’s service said in unison.

Beth Israel, now Bangor’s Conservative synagogue, was planning to build a new Orthodox synagogue two years before the fire, Noman Minsky, the congregation’s historian, said Saturday.

“They decided to build a steel, reinforced cement building that was supposed to be fireproof,” Minsky said to the more than 100 people gathered in the synagogue. “The architectural style was Byzantine Romanesque and was to bring a flavor of Asia Minor to Bangor. That part of the world is the place the congregation felt the origins of Judaism were rooted.”

The building originally was budgeted to cost $25,000, but the congregation ended up spending $78,000 on its construction, he said.

The dedication service was held on a Sunday when there was “no competition from professional football,” Minsky said.

The service 100 years ago concluded, as did Saturday’s event, with the singing of “America.”

“Tickets were required and people stood outside in the cold,” Minsky said. “The mayor of Bangor stood on the steps with the rabbi. He handed the rabbi the key. The rabbi unlocked the door. The scrolls were carried in. and the people followed.”

The Rev. James Haddix, minister at All Souls, was the guest speaker at Beth Israel’s celebration.

“A century ago, our forebears saw the need to build these houses of prayer and of study, to make a home for congregations in which the insights, traditions and work to which their fathers and mothers were devoted could continue to flourish and shape the life of individuals, of families, of institutions and of this community itself,” he said.

The two houses of worship have maintained a close relationship through the years, Haddix said Saturday. Ministers and rabbis have shared each other’s pulpits and co-sponsored programs in the community over the years. In the 1980s and 1990s, when Rabbi Joseph Schonberger was the spiritual leader at Beth Israel, he and Haddix were part of an interfaith klezmer band. Schonberger left Beth Israel and Maine in July 1997 after 15 years as the synagogue’s rabbi.

“We wanted our congregations to worship together, but it was hard theologically, so we thought music would be a good way to bring people together, and it did,” Haddix said.

The band no longer exists, but the houses of worship share common bonds. including Abraham as a spiritual ancestor, he said.

“In our founding documents, the people of All Souls acknowledged gratitude ‘to God for the memory and the inspiration of [the faithful men and women who established First and Central churches] … their toils and prayers and sacrifices.’ They pledged to ‘walk in the ways of the God of our fathers’ and constituted themselves as ‘the All Souls Congregational Church of Bangor. So help us God.’ So help us God, indeed.

“I am sure your forebears made similar appeals to memory and toils, prayers and sacrifices of those who founded Congregation Beth Israel and pledged also, to continue to walk in the ways of the God of their fathers,” Haddix said. “Memory, toil, sacrifice and prayer are crucial elements in religious life. Without them and some other elements, congregations collapse and religious life becomes an oddity or an artifact.”

Haddix called for the relationship between the two congregations to continue in the 21st century.

“As always with the children of Adam and Eve, much depends on us, but not perhaps, as much as we think,” Haddix concluded Saturday. “As with Abraham and Sarah, our task is to follow as best we can, to trust and to hail God’s promises from afar. When you are chosen, you just do your best, all the while trusting that the Lord reigns, let the Earth rejoice.”

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