Biddeford is located in York County, and was incorporated in 1855. Known for its long and productive history as a mill town, the textile mills attracted a diverse wave of immigrants, most of whom came to the area from Ireland and from the French-Canadian province of Quebec. Most early Jewish residents worked as peddlers and shop owners, supporting the mill community.
(Saco numbers included from 1955)
Cantor Beth Strassler
36 Bacon Street, Bath
Arnold Shapiro was raised in Biddeford, attended Hebrew School at Congregation Etz Chaim and celebrated his bar mitzvah in 1944. In 1980, he became the president at a time when other board members wanted to close the synagogue due to a lack of membership. He spent countless hours doing everything from organizing High Holiday services to attending bar and bat mitzvah services, recruiting volunteers and supervising building repairs. For over 30 years, Arnold Shapiro selflessly guided the congregation to become the vibrant community it is today. The Arnold Shapiro Community Service Award was created to honor his lifelong commitment and service to Congregation Etz Chaim.
David and Beth Strassler grew up in New York and moved to Biddeford in 1982 where he set up his first medical practice while she commuted to UNH to teach Occupational Therapy. Despite having chosen career paths that can be all-consuming, they were determined to also “live their lives.” They had different spiritual journeys that led them to highly value their Judaism. Although welcomed upon arrival by Biddeford’s Congregation Etz Chaim, it was on the brink of closing. They gradually took on leadership roles with a focus on customizing services and programs to meet the needs of the community. David Strassler now serves as the synagogue president and Beth is an ordained Cantor. “We were working so hard just to have this place be viable. Since I was ordained, the community did hire me part time as a spiritual leader. I feel part of that is connecting with the community at large. We assembled people and said, ‘What’s important, what do you want?’ Then we worked to make that happen. That’s not a traditional Jewish religious institutional approach, that we’re facilitators for what the community wants. I think that’s really important.”
As an Orthodox synagogue, only men counted toward the minyan at Congregation Etz Chaim. And since women did not “count,” they generally did not attend services. Generally, they came to the synagogue to worship only on the High Holidays and sat apart from the men in the sanctuary’s balcony, reached by a staircase in the bell-tower.
When the bell-tower was razed, the women’s section was relocated to a second sanctuary separated from the main sanctuary by a wall with many sheer-curtained windows which enabled the women to hear the service but not view the men running it.
Since Etz Chaim’s shift from its Orthodox roots, egalitarianism has been upheld in every respect with mixed seating and women and men serving in equal numbers on the synagogue’s board of directors. The staircase to the sanctuary’s balcony is long gone, leaving the balcony unreachable – a reminder of the marginalization of women, a practice Etz Chaim has left in the past.