Services were scheduled one Friday a month and were led by congregation members alternately using the facilities of the Jewish Community Center and the Unitarian Church. The time-honored tradition of the Oneg Shabbat caught on very quickly and soon there were more families, many with small children, some with grown children, enjoying services, challah, wine, grape juice, and any other goodie that had been prepared by the newly established Social Committee. Members were recruited to serve on the Board of Directors of the fledgling congregation with meetings held either in the offices of the President or in people’s homes.
It became apparent very early on that certain decisions had to be made: Would services be held at the Jewish Community Center or at the Unitarian Church? Would there be a religious school? Who would teach the children? How often would services be held? Would the laws of Kashruth be strictly observed for the Oneg Shabbats? How would the congregation survive financially?
One by one, all of these questions were addressed and Congregation Beth El began to develop its own identity and traditions in eastern Maine. Membership increased slowly but steadily with folks coming to Bangor from as far away as Patten, Blue Hill, Bar Harbor, Penobscot, Searsport, creating a catchment area of nearly ten thousand square miles. Many of the members did not have family nearby but they began to experience the family of Beth El in a very short time.
Within two years, there were thirteen students enrolled in the religious school and lay teachers taught Jewish history, Hebrew, Jewish holiday traditions, and preparation for B’nai Mitzvah, the first occurring in October, 1983 and several more following in the Spring of 1984. Beth El elected Dr. Sidney Block as its first president in 1981. He served for five years until Mark Roth was elected to a two year term, the length being designated in the newly adopted bylaws in 1986. All subsequent presidential terms of office would be for two years.
Early in the life of Beth El, a strong need arose for rabbinic leadership and guidance, but the congregation was not large enough or financially able to employ a rabbi. Partly because of these circumstances, and partly because he felt a strong commitment to this small congregation in Maine, Rabbi Paul Menitoff of the (then-named) Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) began to come to Bangor with his family in 1982 to serve as Rabbi for the High Holidays. Each year that he would travel the Maine Turnpike to Bangor, Rabbi Menitoff brought a borrowed Torah to use during the services. When the holidays were over, Rabbi Menitoff and his family, and the Torah, returned to Boston. During one of the Rabbi Menitoff’s visits, Beth El was presented with a plaque signifying its acceptance as a member in good standing of the UAHC, a joyous day in the life of the congregation. Very soon thereafter, Beth El was presented with a two hundred year old Torah that had been rescued from Czechoslovakia after World War II and had been restored by the Westminster Synagogue Trust in London. This Torah, given to Beth El on permanent loan, had been designated for use by young congregations until such time as these congregations could buy a Torah of their own.
Through the mid 1980’s Beth El brought in an occasional visiting Rabbi for services. In 1987, the Board of Directors, in consultation with the members, voted to undertake a search for a more permanent Rabbi who, though he/she would not be full time, would travel to Bangor regularly and provide the rabbinic leadership that was needed. In 1987, Rabbi David Sandmel assumed the position of Rabbi on a part-time basis as Beth El shared his time with the Reform Congregation in Portland. Within a year, Rabbi Sandmel needed to devote all of his time to the Portland congregation. In 1988 Beth El enlisted the services of Rabbi Shoshana Perry to serve the congregation two long weekends per month. She traveled first from New York City and then from Philadelphia while first she, and then her husband, finished school. Rabbi Perry devoted her time to worship, introducing many new traditions, to teaching, to adult education, and to outreach to Bar Harbor helping shape Beth El as we know it now. In 1991, Rabbi Perry moved to Bangor and she became Beth El’s first resident Rabbi, serving Beth El until 1994 when she assumed a position as Assistant Rabbi in a larger synagogue in the Boston area.
By 1994, the membership had grown to between 90 and 100 families, and with a larger membership base, Beth El was ready to hire a full time Rabbi. A search committee, chaired by Irwin Gross, was established by President Ellie Pancoe to seek a full time Rabbi. After a comprehensive search and visits to Bangor by the three finalists, Rabbi Laurence Elis Milder was selected to be the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El. With a full time rabbi in residence, membership increased to about 150 families and has been relatively constant ever since. Through the years, Rabbi Milder has served as the Principal of the Religious school, providing consultation and guidance in developing a formal curriculum, has introduced confirmation classes to the high school students in the congregation, and has trained numerous students for their B’nai Mitzvah by teaching them trope as well as the numerous prayers to lead the Shabbat morning service. Rabbi Milder, who is also a professional musician, introduced a great deal of music to the Shabbat services, and developed a wonderful choir that participates in the High Holiday services and others throughout the year. There has also been an expansion of adult education classes, an Introduction to Judaism series for those people considering conversion to Judaism, a continuation of outreach to Jews in rural Maine, and in 2002, the first annual trip to Israel led by Rabbi Milder.
Perhaps Beth El’s proudest achievement was the decision in 1995 to spread its wings and seek a home of its own. After a six month capital campaign, co-chaired by President Irwin Gross and Mark Roth, pledges in the amount $325,000 were made that allowed the congregation to purchase the property at 183 French Street in Bangor, a building that had been a former Christian Science Reading Room and most recently, prior to its purchase, the home of the Messiah Baptist Church. On March 1, 1995, a cold, snowy day, Rabbi Milder and congregants proudly walked the Torah from the Unitarian Church to French Street as our new home was officially designated Congregation Beth El. In April, the official dedication of the building took place with distinguished guests in attendance, including Congressman John Baldacci and leaders of the other synagogues in Bangor. Governor Angus King issued a proclamation read by State Representative Michael Saxl, a Beth El member since childhood, declaring the day Congregation Beth El day in the State of Maine.
Renovations to the downstairs took place in the summer of 1995 to provide classrooms for the religious school. Since that time, various projects have been completed to make the building more comfortable for all of the congregation’s activities, including handicapped accessibility. At the present time, an Architecture Committee is studying the facility and will be making recommendations to the Board of Directors regarding spatial improvements to the building.
In 2002, Beth El was generously given land by Congregation Beth Israel abutting the other Jewish cemeteries near Mount Hope Cemetery. The land was developed and is now the Beth El Cemetery in Bangor. The beautiful sacred grounds will serve the needs of our members for many years to come.
The years 2002-2004 saw many Beth El youth going to the UJR summer programs, a new youth scholarship program for attending the summer programs, the “institutionalization” of the joyous and sometimes silly Purim celebrations, the continuing tradition of congregational Seders, and the first Beth El youth conclavette in November, 2004 which attracted more than 80 Jewish youth from all over Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire.
The year 2005, of course, saw our rabbi of 11 years, Larry Milder, move on to a congregation in Westborough, Massachusetts. It has also been the year when we selected Rabbi Darah Lerner as our new spiritual leader whose installation will occur on October 21.
Congregation Beth El continues to thrive with friendliness, warmth, a welcoming spirit to newcomers, and the experience of support for members through simchas and grief. It has developed a very strong tradition of social activism in the greater Bangor area which is expressed through social action, education, and worship. Beth El remains a powerful Jewish voice in Bangor and eastern Maine, and, as we were told by Rabbi David Wolfman, Beth El is a very well respected and attractive congregation throughout the northeast region.