Etz Chaim preserves Jewish heritage in Portland

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Dionne Smith/ Director of Photography

By: Max Lorber, Staff Writer

Stories of the Jewish community in Maine fostered throughout the generations continues to be preserved at the Jewish Museum. The Maine Jewish Museum, located within the Etz Chaim synagogue, celebrates Jewish art, history and culture.

“We do everything we can to make sure that people won’t forget that we are here, that people were here before us,” said Gary Barron, executive director of the museum.

The Maine Jewish Museum preserves the stories of Jews not only from the Munjoy Hill area, but throughout the state. Placards on the second floor tell various stories of Jewish families. On display are quotes by notable individuals, such as J.D Salinger and Judd Nelson, about their experiences attending Jewish camps in Maine. On the third floor are several first-hand accounts from survivors of the Holocaust that settled in the state.

Art exhibits are also held at the Jewish Museum, with artists’ work being displayed for two months at a time.

Dionne Smith/ Director of Photography

“I felt they should have exhibitions here by Jewish artists with a Maine connection,” said Nancy Davidson, curator in residence of the Jewish Museum.

The first floor is currently displaying paintings by the late Mark Baum, a Jewish artist who was active from the late 1920’s up until the mid-1990’s. The hallway leading from the entrance shows realism pieces Baum did early in his career, and the main gallery exhibits his later, abstract style that he became known for.

Jessyca Broekman’s mixed media collection currently being displayed on the third floor was inspired by the enigmatic story of her parents’ struggle for survival during, and ultimate escape from, the Nazi occupation of Holland. Both were survivors of the Holocaust, but said nothing of their story to Broekman. It wasn’t until they passed away that she got her hands on her parents’ preserved documents and journals and letters. Broekman made etched, lithographed and monotype prints of these files, then cut and folded them to create paper sculptures resembling books, most of which she adorned with paintings and drawings using gesso, guash, watercolor, pencil, and oil.

Dionne Smith/ Director of Photography

Etz Chaim was originally founded as an orthodox synagogue in 1921. The congregation was made up of mostly Eastern European Jewish immigrants and their descendants. The Munjoy Hill neighborhood in Portland was known for the Irish and Italian families that settled there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but there was also a vibrant and tight-knit Jewish community there. This community revolved around three synagogues that were founded at the base of the hill. Etz Chaim is the only one remaining today.

As is a common story among these kinds of immigrant strongholds, through the years the Jews in that area slowly began moving away, and the other synagogues began closing. The congregation at Etz Chaim dwindled and the building began to fall into disrepair.

In 2003, Etz Chaim became an egalitarian synagogue. This meant that anyone could worship there, whether they were conservative, orthodox or reformed. This helped increase participation with the synagogue.

In 2009, there was a major initiative to restore the synagogue to its original aesthetic. The Maine Jewish Museum was then founded within Etz Chaim.

“We want to make sure we are recognizing that these people toughed it out enough to create a multigenerational family, and a legacy of their own,” Barron said.

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