Shabbaton at the Shul on the Beach

A Shabbaton was held Parshat Va’yera (Veteran’s Day weekend) in Old Orchard Beach, a 7-mile stretch of beautiful sand and ocean along Maine’s southern coast, and my husband and I  were excited to attend.  For one thing, my husband doesn’t get that many opportunities to daven with a minyan.  It’s always nice to meet new people from different Jewish communities.  And as part of the Maine contingent, we felt a responsibility and desire to participate since frum Maine Jews are so few and far in between.  We had been Shabbos guests in Old Orchard Beach in September (you may read about the town’s Jewish history in a previous blogpost by clicking here) and were looking forward to returning.

Jewishly speaking, Old Orchard Beach was in its heyday until the 1960s, although they still get a small summer crowd and do have a summer minyan.  Congregation Beth Israel is a magnificent but small-sized jewel of a shul built in 1912, supposedly by a Jewish community member who was also a boat-builder, and that influence is apparent in its interior architecture and design.  It has always been an Orthodox synagogue since its founding.  Unfortunately, to my knowledge, there are no young people with small children who are members, so its future in the next 20 years is uncertain.

There is a sizeable contingent of traditional Sephardi Israelis who operate the many t-shirt and beachware shops along the main drag, and of course the ubiquitious electronics store is Israeli-owned, too.  Catering primarily to tourists (mostly French Canadians, Mainers, and people from Massachusetts), the concessions and stores are only open during “the season” (aka the summer months).

an Israeli-owned electronics store, boarded up for the winter, will re-open for the summer. (click to enlarge)

But before I could even think of attending the Shabbaton, I had to find a place to board my dog.

Here in rural Maine, most dogs are working dogs.  They may guard a farm or home; herd sheep; retrieve ducks shot in marshes and bogs during hunting season; track and hunt down bears; be hitched to sleds and race during winter; scale mountains with their owners during hikes; aid in search and rescue in the mountains.  Many rural dogs are left outside year round, sheltering in an outdoor kennel or cage insulated with straw.  Few are “indoor” dogs living in the lap of luxury as mere accessories to their owners, with no expectations as to their worth other than as loyal companions offering unconditional love.

There are plenty of kennels near where I live, but none were the right environment for my dog.  Most of the kennels were extremely confined spaces; they didn’t allow for socialization with other dogs lest fighting occur (my dog loves to play); and most kennel owners showed up only to fill the dogs’ bowls with food and water and to let them out to go to the bathroom.  Otherwise there was no human contact nor interaction.

Finally I found a place that was “cage free.”  At the unfortunately named “Doggone Fun Doggy Daycare” all dogs interacted all of the time, playing together during the day in a huge grassy fenced area and sleeping together in a converted garage (connected to the owner’s home)  that was filled with old couches and cots.  However, since the dogs had constant interaction, it was necessary for them to get along, as not all dogs interact happily.  So the kennel required my bringing my dog sometime before (a 90 minute drive one way!) for a 1-hour “evaluation” to make sure his social skills were up to snuff.  You’d think he was trying to get into Harvard.

As bad as this sounds, apparently I am not as neurotic as most dog owners.  I did not feel a need to check on the live webcam the kennel posts 24/7 to make sure my dog was faring well.  Nor did I wish to become a Facebook friend so I could watch the numerous videos and photos of the doggie boarders  the kennel owner posts throughout the day.  Fortunately his rates were fair, unlike another kennel I checked out whose rates were higher than the motel we booked in Old Orchard Beach.  I was not about to pay more for my dog’s accommodations than my own!

Now that the dog was taken care of, I could concentrate on the Shabbaton.

The Shabbaton organizers arranged special, inexpensive rates at two different nearby motels for Shabbaton participants.  I booked the cheaper one and didn’t give it a second thought until a few minutes before we set out for Old Orchard Beach.    I googled the name of the motel and “reviews” and suddenly felt sick.  Here are excerpts from actual online reviews:

“As soon as we opened the door we were overwhelmed with a horrible stench of cigarettes, feet, and cat pee.”

“You got to be kidding!”

“It was like something out of  ‘I Love Lucy.'”

“The ceiling fan also served as an automatic air freshener – someone rubber banded a pine tree air freshener for a car onto the fan blade.”

 “No sign of bugs. I guess they already moved out.”

 “Each room is slanted, so your equilibrium is off the whole time. Then have a couple of cocktails and wow – weird feeling.”

“Find another place to stay.”

I turned to my husband in a panic.  “What should we DO?” I whined, practically in tears.  “Bring the Lysol!  Bring the sleeping bags! We might need them if the beds are really gross!”

With great apprehension, we arrived at the motel, about a 2-hour southerly drive from our house.  It did seem rather run-down from the outside, but the staff was accommodating when I asked to look at the room first before committing.

I guess all those negative reviews on the internet worked.  Because the room may have needed updating, but it was spotless. There was absolutely no odor of cigarettes, dirty feet, nor cat pee. The linens were fresh and looked new.  The kitchenette was spotless, as was the bathroom.  The carpet was frayed, but clean.  The room was pristine.  And the mattress was soooo comfortable, I slept soundly for 9 hours straight later that night.  A train passed nearby, but never when I was sleeping.  The location was great.  The price was right.  Life was good. (And yes, I followed up with a positive online review.)

With only an hour remaining before the beginning of Shabbat, I ran to the shul and took some pictures of the interior and exterior, as well as the beach that was literally in the shul’s backyard.  I ran back to the motel, stashed my camera, and walked back to the shul with my husband, where I lit candles and he davened with the minyan.

Congregation Beth Israel of Old Orchard Beach, built 1912

Said to have been built by a Jewish boat builder, the shul reflects Maine's seafaring heritage. Notice the white lace mechitza that separates the men's section from the ladies' section. (click to enlarge)

Note the interesting curves at the corners of the ceiling (click to enlarge)

The view from the bima looking towards the shul entrance (click to enlarge)

Almost every window along the sides of the shul has stained glass dedicated by various members of yore (click to enlarge)

Now you’ve seen the facade and interior.  How about a tour of the shul’s “backyard?”

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

I lit candles two doors away, at the restaurant where we’d be having our Shabbat meals.  The Barefoot Boy was built several decades ago by the brother of our Old Orchard Beach Shabbaton organizer and hosts, the Weinsteins.  A few years ago he sold it to an Italian guy with whom the Weinsteins maintain a good relationship.  Due to the restaurant’s proximity to the shul, and the fact that the restaurant is now open only on Sundays due to the off-season, the owner was amenable to hosting the meals, catered by the Chabad rebbetzin from Portand, for the Shabbaton.  Imagine: delicious kosher Shabbos meals . . . in a lobster restaurant!

This lobster restaurant is where we lit Shabbat candles and ate our meals. At that time the tables were decorated with white Shabbos tablecloths and bouquets of fresh flowers. Although it was kind of strange to be eating amongst fishnets and mermaid and lobster decorations, most of the main street was shuttered for the season with no tourists about, so I don't think there was an issue of mar'as ayin.

Although the shul remains open every Shabbos throughout the year, it was the first time that Congregation Beth Israel had a minyan since the summer season, so worshippers were greeted with extreme joy and appreciation.  It was an eclectic mix of people, ages 3 to 69:  five people from Old Orchard Beach, a family of three from Portland, and my husband and I made up the Maine contingent.  The other 25 or so people came from the Boston-Newton area (one family via Russia).  Just about everyone there was a ba’al tshuva, including the featured speaker, an American rabbi now living in Israel who studies the writings of Reb Nachman of Breslov.

Due to the intimacy of the environment, we quickly established a kesher (ties) with many of the participants.  In fact we shmoozed so long over lunch that there wasn’t time to return to the motel before mincha, so the participants continued their shmoozing on the sunny but very brisk beachfront.  I am hopeful we will soon be having many new Shabbos visitors to our house in Maine!

After mincha I returned to the motel and as soon as Shabbos was over, I said Baruch HaMavdil bein kodesh la’chol.  I  drove my car to the shul, camera in hand, for havdalah.

The Weinsteins lead havdala on Motzei Shabbos in the shul

Shabbaton participants during motzei Shabbos davening

(click to enlarge)

On motzei Shabbos all of us went to the Weinsteins for a Melave Malka for discussion, camaraderie, and more food.

On Sunday morning I dashed to the beach in time for a sunrise photo.

Sunrise, 6:35 a.m., Old Orchard Beach (click to enlarge)

I was thrilled to find sand dollars at low tide, which brought back fond memories from my childhood, when we used to collect sand dollars, clamshells, abalone shells and conch shells on the beaches in Santa Monica and Malibu (in the 1960s there were actually shells on the beach, which is no longer the case).  I put the sand dollars in my pockets, with the idea of sending them to my grandchildren.  Sand dollars are really quite amazing works of art: HaShem has stamped each with a perfectly engraved daisy.

Sand dollars (click to enlarge)

Even on the smallest of scales, HaShem's imprint on everything in the world fills me with wonder! (click to enlarge)

The Shabbaton concluded Sunday morning with davening, brunch and a shiur.  We said our goodbyes and exchanged email addresses. I headed north, back to our house in Maine, first picking up our dog at the kennel, who survived his stay at Doggone Fun Doggy Daycare without incident.

The burden of maintaining the 100-year-old building is met primarily by the very small number of Jews who live full-time in OOB (as it’s known to locals).  Tax-deductible donations may be made towards the shul’s upkeep and special programs by sending a check to Congregation Beth Israel, PO Box 213, Old Orchard Beach ME 04064

Things have not changed since this decades-old sign was posted at the shul entrance. The shul will celebrate its centennial in 2012. It relies heavily and hopefully on donations and the generous support of its few residents to sustain itself. (click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

One response to this post.

  1. thank you for the outstanding, magnificent photography; it brought part of your shabbaaton experience right into my home. Such a jewel tucked away in New England. thank you . mf la


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