By Lynn Urbach, President
Every summer when my brother and I were young, my mom would drop us off in Birmingham, Alabama, to stay with our grandmother for two weeks while she travelled the world by herself. In the 60s and early 70s it was unusual for a woman to travel solo around South America or Europe. But if you know my mother, it won’t surprise you a bit that she bucked the norm. I remember listening to her stories when she returned. When she arrived in a new city, she would find the local Progressive (Reform) synagogue and attend the Friday evening Shabbat service. In many synagogues, those services are held early so people can go home afterwards and have a leisurely family Shabbat dinner. My mom didn’t know Spanish, but she knew the Hebrew prayers. Some of the tunes may have been different, but most of the words were the same. Afterwards, during the oneg, snacks after services, she would invariably meet someone who spoke a little English and who would invite her over for Shabbat dinner that night. More than one time this led to a personal guided city tour the following day.
This anecdote symbolizes to me the value and significance of community in Jewish life. When I think of belonging to the Jewish community, I think of the Bet Ha’am community, and the greater Portland Jewish community, the Maine Jewish community, and I think of k’lal yisrael, the Jewish people, throughout the world.
Community. As human beings, we crave a sense of belonging. We count on our communities for companionship, for support, for collective resources. When we think about our community, we may think of our local, geographic community, or our college community, or our extended family, or one of many other communities. For obvious reasons, I choose here to talk about Jewish community. Whether you are Jewish by birth, Jewish by choice, or Jewish by alliance, you are part of the Jewish community, of my community. Being part of the Jewish community may mean different things to different people. Chances are that your connection to the Jewish community is centered on our congregation. Congregation Bet Ha’am can be a community to which you are closely tied, or slightly associated, or anything in between. That is your choice. I hope you choose to be or become closely tied. Here are a few of the many opportunities to which you are automatically invited, just by being a member of this community:
- The Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine (JCA) offers programs for adults, children, and families. These include, but are not limited to, education, exercise and sports, childcare, PJ library, and Jewish summer camp. It also serves as a community resource in the event of antisemitic incidents, of which nine were recorded in Maine in 2018. (https://www.adl.org/audit2018#major-state-findings, Anti-Defamation League, 12/29/2020)
- The Center for Small Town Jewish Life at Colby College offers and sponsors statewide programming—including statewide Shabbat services this past summer in which many Maine rabbis of various denominations, including our own Rabbi Saks, participated—the annual Maine Conference for Jewish Life, education programs, and more.
- The Maine Jewish Film Festival (MJFF), the main event of which is the fall festival featuring films of all types about the global Jewish community. (Did you know this was started in 1998 at Bet Ha’am?)
- The Maine Jewish Museum in Portland houses a permanent exhibition about Maine Jewish history and additional exhibitions which rotate every six weeks.
There are other resources as well. You can find many of them listed on our web site here. Most of these opportunities are not restricted to the Jewish community and are open to the public. But the focus, their primary intention and purpose, is to serve the Jewish community. That’s us!
We at Bet Ha’am show ourselves to be a part of the worldwide Jewish community each time we welcome a visitor to join us. Whether visitors come to our synagogue from southern Maine or from literally any place on the globe, they already are a part of k’lal yisrael, our worldwide community. Being involved at Bet Ha’am means not only enriching our own Jewish lives, but also being a place for traveling Jews, like my mother was, to find connection and community and even lifelong friendships with people near and far.