Calais

Calais, Maine, located in Washington County, has three Canada-US ports-of-entry over the St. Croix River. During the early years of the town, Calais flourished due to the lumber and shipbuilding industries, and by 1830 was home to Maine’s first railroad in order to move lumber between the mills and the port. In the 1920s, 7,000 people called Calais home. Twenty families from the St. Croix Valley came together to establish a synagogue.

Calais Jewish Census

(estimated)

1880-1995

Calais

Congregation of Chaim Yosef

1924 - 1972

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Congregation of Chaim Yosef

Congregational Timeline

1911

The Unobskey family opened a small clothing store on Main Street in Calais.

1926

Congregation of Chaim Yosef inaugurated.

1987

Synagogue demolished. Memorial plaques moved to Bangor, other documents moved to St. John Jewish Historical Museum.

1923

Sarah Unobskey purchased what was once the Joseph Kalish house on North St.

1953

Dedication ceremony held 0n October 25th.

1924

Twenty Jewish families in St. Croix valley established Washington County’s first and only synagogue. Sarah Unobskey funded the building and hired a rabbi. In an unconventional move, she named it, The Congregation of Chaim Yosef, in honor of her late husband.

1972

Last year the synagogue held High Holiday services.

Congregation of
Chaim Yosef

Calais

Clergy Leadership Over the Years:

Sarah Unobskey (1878-1935) persuaded her husband, Joseph, to leave Snovsk, Russia (now Ukraine) in 1903, rather than have him drafted into the Russo-Japanese war. He left Sarah and their two sons, arrived at Ellis Island, and began working in the fur industry in Boston. His sales region was Washington County, Maine, and like other Jewish immigrants before him, Joseph started his career as a peddler, traveling from farm to farm, and selling goods.

In 1905, Sarah and their sons, Arthur and William, joined Joseph, and the family settled in Eastport. They had another son, Charles.

In 1911, the Unobskeys became U.S. citizens and moved to Calais, opening a clothing store called “Unobskey’s Store.” Joseph died in 1922, leaving Sarah and her sons to run the growing business.

Harold Silverman, a former Maine state legislator, grew up in Calais with little Jewish knowledge. His grandfather had immigrated to Portland from Vilna and raised a family there. But Silverman said his father moved to Calais because “he wanted more of the country-side lifestyle. I was raised there from the age of 2. I had no commitment to Judaism. There was no observance at home. The religious school was seen as medieval and a conflict between the religious world and the new America.” 

Over time, Silverman’s commitment to and understanding of Judaism grew, thanks to one particular life-changing trip to Israel. Though the Chaim Yosef Synagogue had ceased holding regular services  by then, the shul still held High Holy Days services, and Silverman and his family were in the pews.

When the temple closed its doors, one of the three Torahswas sent to a congregation in Montreal, while a second went to a nursing home in Boston. The third was held in a vault in St. Joseph, New Brunswick,  in the hope that one day the Jewish community of Calais would be revived and would need a Torah. But Calais never attracted more than a few Jewish families over the years, and the day came when the vault closed, and the Torah needed a home.

Silverman said he spoke with an Israeli friend who suggested offering it to the Menora Authority, an organization that finds a home for Judaica no longer in use. When Silverman asked where in Israel the scroll would be sent, he learned to his amazement that it was headed for the very community that had turned his life around. He then drove 90 miles through the woods with the Torah and met the Menora Authority’s representative at the airport in Bangor.

In Israel, the Menora Authority took the Torah to a regional high school that served 1,200 youngsters in the Beit She’anValley. The Torah was formally presented during the High Holy Days when Silverman and his family made their annual trip to Israel.

And it was dedicated to the memory of a 25-year-old Israeli major, Nadav Milo, who was killed in Lebanon in 1997. Milo was a member of Kibbutz Sde Elyahu, where Harold Silverman had found his Jewish roots. ~Bangor Daily News

Harold Silverman