Today, our congregation includes about 150 families hailing from a wide variety of more and less local areas. We range in membership from those who have spent long and fulfilling lives here, to families with infant children, and we welcome everyone in between. Members of our community read Torah and Haftorah each week, there are many opportunities for folks--both new and old--to get involved. We also have a lovely sponsored kiddush and luncheon every week, which is prepared by some especially hard working and devoted members. We are affiliated with the Conservative movement, and we consider ourselves to be a strongly community-oriented and egalitarian shul.
The History of Beth Israel
In 1882, the first of Beth Israel’s founding fathers came to Bangor. At first, they were just a small group of men—barely reaching the 10 required for a minyan—but by 1888 a sense of regular congregational life began to form. October of 1888 saw the formation of the Beth Israel Society—the precursor to the Congregation that we all know and love. One Hazan Goldenkopf joined the community in 1895, bringing with him another Torah scroll, and, at his suggestion, the process of building a synagogue began in earnest. After two years of fundraising, on August 22, 1897, the cornerstones of the building at 114 Center St. were laid down.
After four years of faithful service, Hazan Goldenkopf moved back to New York, and the Beth Israel community decided that it was time for a bona fide rabbi to take the spiritual reins. In April of 1903, Rabbi Seltzer joined our community; he served humbly and with distinction for three years, and had a great impact on the congregation’s formative years.
Around the same time, a relatively new part of the community—a group of Sephardic Jews—began to desire a place to pray in their own tradition, separate from the Ashkenazi tradition on which Congregation Beth Israel had been founded. At first, they only wanted a separate service, but in the end the two groups split apart. This new group created what is now Beth Abraham, our across-the-street sister congregation. Of course, at this time Beth Israel was still an Orthodox community. It wasn’t until later on that we moved to the Conservative movement.
On April 30, 1911, tragedy struck Beth Israel, and the entire Bangor community. The fire that tore through the city was one of the most destructive fires to strike a Maine city. Two people lost their lives, and many more were injured and lost incredible amounts of property. In a spectacular bout of public service, firefighters from Waterville, Augusta, Lewiston, and Portland were rushed to Bangor to aid in fighting the blaze. Our first synagogue building was demolished that night, once it had already caught aflame, as part of the effort to stop the fire from spreading.
In the aftermath of the Bangor Fire of 1911, Congregation Beth Israel decided to build the new building in a new location—our current home at 144 York St—as it was more central to the Jewish community of the time. It took a little time, but in 1913 the new building stood proudly, almost as our building does today. The new building was consecrated on March 9, 1913, and the mayor of Bangor, along with other dignitaries of state and church were in attendance.
Around the time that WWII ended, the Beth Israel community was going through some spiritual changes. As time went on, a feeling that a move away from the passive, rigid Orthodoxy was needed to engage the community. Questions of the places of woman in the shul, as well as English in the services became hotly debates issues. It took years for Beth Israel to come to grips with the changing of their practices to fit the times, and when Rabbi Avraham Freedman joined the community things really took off. Rabbi Freedman knew that Beth Israel craved community involvement. He began our longstanding tradition of Friday evening services and Sunday morning minyan, in addition to the regular Shabbat services. Needless to say, Beth Israel grew under Rabbi Freedman’s stewardship, and he led the community for 20 years before making aliyah to Israel in 1969.
In the early 1970s, under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Irving Margolies, the shul continued to expand. Attendance at services was growing, more land was purchased for future generations to expand upon, and multiple study groups were being attended by the community. Sadly, membership began to wane in the following years. There were times when Beth Israel and Beth Abraham had to rely on one another in order to make a minyan—a practice that continues even today, and one that shows pride in the larger Jewish community as a whole—and through the early 1980s renovations were completed. It was to this stage that Rabbi Joseph Schonberger was introduced in 1982.
Rabbi Schonberger’s joining the community was a milestone—he was the first Conservative rabbi to be hired at Congregation Beth Israel. His tenure with us saw an increase in shul activities, and a special focus on involving the Jewish youth. He was with us through the summer of 1997.
Our most recent rabbi, Justin Goldstein, was with us from July 2011 through December 2013. Rabbi Goldstein was a beloved member of our community for the short time he spent with us, and we wish him and his family all the best in their future endeavors.
Learn about a little known story of Jewish American history
To order a copy of our 120 Anniversary DVD for $18 plus shipping, please click below or email the office
To learn even more about the history of Congregation Beth Israel purchase a copy of our Centennial History published in 1988 for $54 plus shipping. Click below or email the office