Archive for September 19th, 2011

The Shul on the Beach

As one of the founding members of the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, California, back in the late 1970’s (revived from its 1930s origins), my husband and I were quite amazed to find yet another Orthodox “shul on the beach” 3,100 miles away in the town of  Old Orchard Beach, Maine (gen. pop. 9500), about 2 hours’ drive from our Maine house in the White Mountains.  Talk about deja vu.

Congregation Beth Israel is celebrating its centennial in the coming year, and although its membership numbers have fallen, it has remained an Orthodox shul since its inception.  The history of “Jewish” Old Orchard Beach is quite fascinating.  Located at 39 East Grand Avenue, Congregation Beth Israel is an exquisite little gem of a shul, right on the main boulevard nestled between motels, souvenir stores, bars and (non-kosher) restaurants, and an amusement park on the pier that is nearly identical to the old Santa Monica pier (for you nostalgic Californians out there).  The shul  backs onto the fine, silky sand and magnificent breaking waves of the Atlantic Ocean.  Old Orchard has been called “Maine’s Gold Coast” and “Maine’s Riviera” and today the clean, 7-mile-long white-sand beach attracts many French Canadian families who enjoy vacationing there on a greatly weakened US dollar.

The shul’s population has waxed and waned, but has always remained Orthodox and has a mechitzah.  Old Orchard Beach at one time attracted a heavily Jewish clientele during the summer season, but in the 1960’s it somehow lost its cachet and attracted a rougher, non-Jewish crowd.  Then in the 1980s and 90s, Israeli businessmen and entrepreneurs came for the summers and began buying and renting commercial real estate, running t-shirt shops, food emporiums, souvenir stands and electronics stores that catered to the summer crowd, and once again the shul had a number of summer “regulars,”  Israelis who were of traditional, but not necessarily Orthodox background.  At present in the summer there is almost always a Shabbos minyan consisting of vacationers, shop owners, and permanent residents, but the rest of the year there is a minyan only when the shul’s main caretakers and board chairman, Eber Weinstein, and his wife Luba, organize Shabbatonim for people from the Boston area. Even though on a typical “off season” Shabbos there may not be a minyan, the shul is always open on Shabbat and has kiddush and shalosh seudos (a late afternoon meal before the departure of the Sabbath)  following davening, lovingly prepared by Eber Weinstein and his brother, shul president and attorney Neal Weinstein.  My husband was extremely impressed when he walked to shul with Eber Weinstein on Shabbos morning, and it seemed like everyone they passed by – Jew and gentile alike – whether from the street or from cars – stopped to wave and greet Eber with great enthusiasm.  Clearly he is a well-regarded, popular and respected figure in Old Orchard Beach.

The Weinsteins are native Mainers and have many fascinating and amusing stories about both the Jewish community and growing up in Maine.  Eber’s wife, Luba, is originally from Odessa and more recently from Boston.  Her Massachusetts friends thought that when she married, she was making a terrible mistake by moving to a place so far from a mainstream Jewish community, but to their (and her own) surprise, she loves it.  Every week the Weinsteins open their home to Jewish residents of Old Orchard Beach and to various travelers and visitors for Shabbat meals, and their hachnasat orchim and ahavas yisrael are legendary.  Many guests from large, established frum Jewish communities around the US have told her that the Shabbos they spent in Old Orchard Beach was the most meaningful they’ve ever experienced.

It was certainly exciting for us to visit this community and make the acquaintance of the Weinsteins and some of the other Jewish residents of Old Orchard Beach who are life-long Mainers, among them some singles in their 40s and 50s who are looking for their basherts, and who wish to continue living within a small-town environment and maintain the quality of life that is unique to Maine.

Although the Jewish population is very small in Maine, we have been befriended by several Jewish Mainers, many of whom have Maine roots that date back to the 1800s.  When you’re Jewish, it really is a small world.