Bet Ha’am: The Early Days

by Elaine Falender

In connection with Bet Ha’am’s 25th anniversary in April 2010, congregant Elaine Falender did some “research” for a Shabbat dinner presentation. A copy of that presentation is presented here so that current congregants can learn more about our beginnings.

What was it like, back at “the beginning”? When was the beginning anyway?

I have been looking through some old papers and scouring my memory to go back twenty-five years and create a picture, a snapshot really, of where we came from. Let me start by saying that what I am about to share is not strictly history in that I am not an objective reporter. This is a very subjective reflection, a personal recollection of what for me was the reality of my earliest experiences at Bet Ha’am in the first few years.

We were newcomers to Maine from Washington, DC, without family nearby. A rabbi from my home temple in Indianapolis had performed our wedding several years earlier, and Gordon, a committed Episcopalian, had agreed to give our children a Jewish upbringing. Bet Ha’am was a Jewish community that not only tolerated but embraced interfaith families. And from the beginning Bet Ha’am embraced Jews whose personal ritual choices varied widely.

But that is getting ahead of the story. Those key fundamental decisions, to emphasize the creation of Jewish community, to embrace interfaith families, and to maintain an open and liberal approach to ritual, were just being made.

Let me share a bit of that story, some from my personal memory and some from congregation records of the very earliest meetings, including in particular a booklet of personal interviews entitled Bet Ha’am: The Beginning, made for the congregation by Fred and Bernice Glixman. I’ll mention just a few names of people who nurtured the process, but there were many others.

In 1984, David Sandmel was young rabbi in Cleveland with a dream to return to Maine where he had spent summers with his family. The young rabbi had also met a nice young Jewish girl, Janet Raffel, whose brothers, Jim and Ken Raffel, lived in Portland. As David and Janet’s relationship grew, David had several conversations with the brothers and with Ken’s wife, Lynn, about the feasibility of forming a Reform congregation in Portland. In November 1984, Rabbi Sandmel also telephoned an old family acquaintance, Jody Sataloff, who he knew from summers on the lake, and put the same question to her. Jody and her husband, David Cluchey, were members of a chavurah (study and worship community of friends)of several interfaith couples and the group had talked periodically about the possibility of finding a larger community. The Raffels’ friends Jonathan Levy and Nancy Stone were members of another chavurah in Portland of younger, liberal-minded Jews not quite comfortable with the worship environment of more traditional congregations. So the ball began rolling.

In December, Jody put out a flyer inviting anyone interested in exploring the formation of a Reform congregation to come to a meeting at her house. RSVPs were overwhelming, more than one hundred people, so the meeting was moved to the parish hall at St. Alban’s Church in Cape Elizabeth. That meeting was followed by numerous organizational meetings, a Purim celebration, and a Shabbat service let by Dr. Sid Block, who had been instrumental in organizing a Reform congregation in Bangor.

Finally, the Portland Reform Congregation, now known as Congregation Bet Ha’am, was formally incorporated and held its first potluck dinner and Shabbat service at Woodford’s Congregational Church on March 29, 1985. Rabbi David Sandmel, soon to become the congregation’s rabbi, led the service. Estimates are that over 110 people attended. There is some inconsistency in the records about that date, some people remember it being in April, but all reports agree that it was a wonderful, welcoming evening. As Jody Sataloff remembers, “There were all these strangers…nobody knew anybody…and everyone was in the kitchen with their sleeves rolled up washing dishes and setting the tables.”

Jody’s comment reminds me about one of the myths of Bet Ha’am’s beginning, that at first everyone knew everyone else. But when the community first came together, we were strangers. We became like family, we grew to know each other, because from the beginning creating a community that felt like family was a priority and we worked to make it happen.

My first experience with Bet Ha’am was in the early fall of 1985, when we went to a Shabbat service held at Etz Chaim—Gordon and I and our two children, ages one and two. I remember a historic, traditional Jewish sanctuary, with a beautiful wooden bima (reader’s desk) and pews, overflowing with ruach (spririt) but badly in need of repair. I remember Rabbi Sandmel with his guitar, and everyone singing. Everyone singing—that has always been at the heart of our Bet Ha’am worship experience. I don’t remember who I met that night at the oneg (festive reception after services), but I remember meeting just about everyone else who was in the room.

According to the records, by Rosh Hashanah Bet Ha’am had 100 membership units, and by Yom Kippur, nearly 150 units. So it is clear that Bet Ha’am was a congregation just waiting to be born. The High Holiday services were held, as I recall, in the parish hall at the Congregational Church on Black Point Rd. in Scarborough. The room was full. Everyone was made to feel completely welcome—no membership requirement, no tickets. The goal, the mission, of the congregation was to make Judaism available to all who wanted to worship, without barriers and without prerequisites.

In the beginning, we were a congregation of personalities, where each person’s contribution became part of our formative cloth. We had very little institutional mechanism to make things happen and much did happen in those first years. The original organization steering committee called a meeting to elect a board of directors. Eighteen people were interested in serving on the board, so from then on the board of the congregation has had eighteen members. Jody Sataloff became the first president.

In those days, Bet Ha’am had no permanent space. David Glaser offered office space and secretarial help at his office suites on Congress Street. His conference room, complete with an overflowing candy bowl, hosted many meetings. And I would note, Maria Glaser’s cooking became the backbone of many potluck dinners.

Religious school started that first year with forty-five students in four classrooms, led by volunteer teachers, with Rabbi Sandmel as school director. School met in Waynefleet classrooms. At the end of that first year, we had our first scholar in residence, an educator from the Union for American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC, now the URJ), Rabbi Howard Bogot. I remember listening with other children and parents as he told us about creating new Jewish stories as a way to keep Jewish education alive. By the second year, the school grew to sixty-eight students, twenty-seven of whom were in pre-K or kindergarten. By the third year, we had 110 students and seventeen volunteer teachers. One of those teachers, Sarah Szanton, realized that the school needed a dedicated leader, someone who was not at the same time teaching classes, so she became our first education director. What at first had been a necessity, volunteer teachers, came to be recognized as a key element of our communal commitment to education.

And tikkun olam, repairing the world, was also part of our earliest days. David Handwerker spearheaded a social action committee. The group served meals at Friendship House, hosted a forum on the exploding AIDS epidemic, and a discussion program on the Israeli and Palestinian crisis.

These are some of my memories of the early days. Full of nostalgia, I acknowledge. Did we have financial challenges? Yes. From the beginning we had a rabbi’s salary to support and an entirely voluntary dues system. Did we have trouble finding enough volunteers to teach in school, organize activities, work on fundraising? Yes. Were our early experiences relating to the wider Jewish community sometimes rocky? Absolutely. Were we inexperienced? Yes. Most board members had never been a member of a Jewish congregation in their adult lives, let alone experience in running one. Ray Spiro, Jerry Blaine, and David Glaser were notable exceptions. In our idealism, were we a bit naïve? Perhaps.

But the individuals and families who came together to form and nurture Bet Ha’am had a vision. A vision of a diverse and open Jewish community that would exemplify the very best of what we found in our religious tradition, and would avoid some of the pitfalls that we had experienced in other places. We wanted to do things our own way and so we learned by our successes and by our mistakes.

Bet Ha’am has survived and it has thrived by building on these early aspirations. We have lived in many houses and depended on the good will and generosity of the greater community. Many groups made their facilities available to us in our early years, charging only modest fees that may barely have covered their costs, in particular the Orthodox congregation at Etz Chaim that was our first home; Woodfords Church and Black Point Rd. Congregational Church that housed our high holiday services; the former Jewish Home for the Aged where we spent an interim year. And many congregants generously, often anonymously, gave from their own pockets to cover innumerable expenses, minor and major. Now that we have our own home that we can open and share, may we remember the generosity that we experienced and may we extend that generosity to others.

Bet Ha’am was formed with a spirit of openness and welcome to all who chose to join in Jewish worship, education, and community. May we always preserve this spirit as we move forward from strength to strength.

Photo by Sear Greyson on Unsplash

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