Old Town-Orono are two communities just north of Bangor along the Penobscot River. By 1860, Old Town – once part of Orono – was the largest producer of sawn lumber in the US. Eastern-European Jews began settling in Old Town in the late 19th century, gathering for services as early as 1913.
“The men sat separate from the women. The women did nothing but talk. And there were windows between the two, and the women would open the windows, and the men would close the windows…Everything was in Hebrew and I suspect very few of the people knew what was going on at any time or could understand what was going on. This was all rote and they all enjoyed it.”
~ David Cutler, grandson of B’nai Israel founder, Israel Cutler
“Rabbi Elefant was the Director of B’rith Hillel Foundation for the State of Maine at the time that Temple Israel was built and became an active member of our synagogue. I don’t recall that he was ever our official rabbi although he was part of a minyan many times. Rabbi Elefant and his wife, Channy lived in the apartments on Stillwater Avenue with their four children, all boys. I sometimes babysat for them.
He was a scholar of Orthodox Judaism. While he was learned and highly regarded by the members of the congregation, he was fairly rigid in his practice. It certainly fit with the style of our synagogue and the two generations who founded it. As my generation came along, there was less room to make Judaism the center of our lives. We had one foot in the secular world and one foot in our religious observances.
Rabbi Elefant did not drive on Shabbos, I believe. That factor alone made it difficult for him to take part in services at Temple Israel which was 4 or 5 miles away. Besides, he had his own ministry, the UMO Hillel.
He went on to have a long career leading Hillel Foundations at several schools, 42 years in total. Much of his career was at Syracuse University where he was the first Orthodox Rabbi and built the largest Hillel in the country.”
~ Beth Hillson
“It is strange how much you can remember when your mind returns to that place – how much you take away with your belongings when you leave home. I remember when we decided to build our own synagogue and the town-wide celebration that took place to commemorate its opening in 1955.
“I remember how we were excused from school because of the High Holy Days and walked to synagogue where we sat for endless hours listening as the men davened in a language I did not understand. We were the envy of the entire school body as we walked by the school yard in our best clothes. I couldn’t tell my classmates that part of me would rather have been with them on the playground. I remember how our mothers and grandmothers and aunts fried big batches of potato latkes during Hanukah; how they baked hamantaschen for Purim while we kids chased each other around the sanctuary. And I remember Hebrew school –sitting on uncomfortable folding chairs listening to men who reeked of fish and garlic, spoke with strong accents and tried to explain the teachings of the Talmud. We were a tight-knit community – the outer layer, a crusty, small town of 8500 and, inside, a sweet center where the Jewish families embraced their youth and saw us as the potential for the future.
I can only imagine, they also hoped we would come back to run their businesses and keep the Jewish community going. But when it came time to go to college, I was grateful to leave. Today I am from ‘away’ and the place I called ‘home’ exists only in my memory. Anything tangible of that Jewish community or the mercantile activity of my childhood is impossible to find. While I was in college in the late 60s, Old Town began a steep descent. My parents were the last to leave. They helped to sell our little synagogue in 1987 when there were not enough Jews to conduct a service. If they were still alive, they would be saddened to see downtown boarded and vacant. The building that had been our synagogue has been stripped of its Jewish star and sold to the City for one dollar. In all the years I’ve lived away, I never thought about going home until I couldn’t.”
~ Beth Hillson, “Going Home”