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Surf’s Up for Small Orthodox Shul Along Maine’s Old Orchard Beach

July 18, 2005
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For close to a century, a tiny Orthodox synagogue on the edge of a clean, seven-mile stretch of beachfront jammed with resorts and motels has served the spiritual needs of thousands of Jewish vacationers from New England and Eastern Canada. Thanks to the efforts of two brothers from Haverhill, Mass., whose childhood reminiscences of quaint Old Orchard Beach summers lured them back here permanently, Congregation Beth Israel is still able to serve those needs.

True, Jews don’t flock here for vacations or to their summer homes, as they did during the resort town’s heyday in the 1940s and ’50s.

“People still come all summer, though, and we rely on the tourists for our services,” said Eber Weinstein, 55, a real estate agent who has lived here since 1972. “We do get minyans for Shabbat and Sunday morning services.”

Weinstein once owned a retail store nearby that sold anything kosher that he could get his hands on, until his market evaporated. Now, with Old Orchard Beach experiencing a renaissance after being marketed as an upscale vacation destination, real estate is more promising.

Weinstein is one of five brothers living in the town, along with their mother, Beatrice. He and his brother Neil, a lawyer, have made the upkeep and operation of the synagogue their responsibility, including the fund-raising for essential repairs.

Virtually everything is donated — even the stained-glass windows that add to the synagogue’s uniqueness.

There hasn’t been a rabbi ensconced here for many years, so Eber Weinstein, who doubles as the synagogue’s president, leads services and tutors bar mitzvah boys, while Neil replaces lights and prepares kiddushim.

It was their late father, Julian, who instilled a love for the synagogue in the boys.

“I remember that when we were growing up, my father, brothers and I would comprise more than half the minyan if they needed us,” Eber Weinstein said.

There was also a historic connection.

“One of our great-grandparents was among the group from Portland, Maine, who purchased the land and then donated it for the shul to be built on,” he said.

Weinstein recalled the community that once was and compared it with that of today.

Most of the area’s former Jewish businesses are gone. Where Freedman’s Kosher Bakery and Shefshick’s Kosher Meat Department once stood, you now find The Barefoot Boy eatery and Pierre’s Restaurant.

Even in its heyday, Old Orchard Beach wasn’t a particularly religious place, but Jews liked coming to the seaside town because it was safe, the beach stretched for miles, the amusement park and arcades provided entertainment for the kids and it was close to major Jewish centers in the United States and Canada.

It helped to have an Orthodox shul within a block of the beach and within walking distance of vacationers’ hotels, in case they wanted to attend Shabbat services or mark a yahrzeit.

Today the local Jewish community is small, made up mostly of Sephardic Israelis.

Visitors with a penchant for architecture will find Beth Israel’s interior rather unique.

“It’s built like a ship’s hull, upside down,” Neil Weinstein pointed out. “That way you don’t need supporting beams cluttering up the middle. That was very advanced for its day.”

The synagogue used to have separate entrances for men and women. There still is separate seating, though Eber Weinstein described the shul as “a neutral place for people who desire halachic services in an easygoing atmosphere.”

“We’re very nonjudgmental here. If you’re Jewish, we’re happy to meet you and welcome you,” he added.

It’s so welcoming, in fact, that Jews have come from all over the region, including Bangor, Maine; Worcester, Mass; Boston; New York; and Montreal.

The synagogue had a rabbi for about three years in the early 1980s — Rabbi Emmanuel Gettinger, leader of the New York-based Ezras Torah philanthropic organization.

“Today any Jew who comes in we allow to become a member,” Weinstein says with a chuckle.

The time to come, to really experience “seaside Judaism” in action, is during the High Holidays, he said.

“We get 100 to 150 people from all over the place, and it’s something they never forget,” he said. “My mother gives the break fast after Yom Kippur, and everyone talks about it for a long time afterward.”

For Congregation Beth Israel, it sounds like the spiritual surf’s still up.

Congregation Beth Israel is located at 49 East Grand Ave., P.O. Box 213, Old Orchard Beach, Maine, 04064,

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