A History of Beth Israel Congregation
The story of Beth Israel Congregation rests on the energy and dedication of a few Maine Jews as well as the welcome given them by the Bath non-Jewish community. Jewish presence in Bath began in 1886 when one of the children of the Mikelsky family, on their way by train from Rockland to Boston, became ill. A Bath druggist gladly helped the sick child. That kindness and the welcoming atmosphere of Bath led the Mikelsky family of eleven to decide to remain in Bath.
During the next several decades more Jewish families moved into the Bath region, until by 1919 the burgeoning Jewish community founded Beth Israel Congregation. The 39 founding members included many whose names have become an integral part of Bath's history: Greenblatt, Gediman, Povich, Brown, and Petlock. For the first few years, services were held in various halls in town while funds were raised for a building. Again, the supportive non-Jewish Bath community assisted in the fund-raising effort, contributing $2400.
Finally, the synagogue building at 862 Washington Street was ready, and on January 29, 1922, Congregation President Solomon Greenblatt led a parade from the music hall at Center and Washington Streets where many had gathered for the ceremony. Carrying the Torah, the American flag, and lighted candles, the founding members marched to the new building and opened its doors for the first time.
Charles Arik, Beth Israel's first rabbi, served the congregation the first few years, and was followed by several itinerant rabbis. The shul flourished enough to pay off the mortgage by the early 1930's, but World War II took its toll. During the 1940's the congregation could no longer afford a rabbi. Fortunately, Abe Kramer, a member of the shul, stepped forward as a lay leader. He conducted services and served as congregation president for almost 40 years. For fifteen of those years, starting in the mid-sixties, he was assisted on the High Holidays by Stanley Sperber, who later went on to become the conductor of Rinat, the National Choir of Israel.
After Abe's death in the early 1980's, Beth Israel Congregation began to languish despite the very able lay leadership of Isadore Singer and Donald Povich. But just as the future looked bleakest, the need to educate children Jewishly reinvigorated the synagogue. When it was no longer viable to port the children of the area Jewish families to Hebrew school out of town, Marilyn Weinberg volunteered to teach them in Bath. That budding Hebrew School pulled the parents into the congregation. The school has continued to grow, and in 2002, with the help of a bequest by long-time member Minnie Brown, Beth Israel purchased a building at 906 Washington Street to serve as the permanent home of the Hebrew School, which now educates our children.
Beth Israel's membership has grown over the years. In the fall of of 1996 Rabbi Ruth Smith joined us as our spiritual leader. Under her seven-year guidance our Hebrew school grew to include 40 children. On her departure in 2002, Cantor Daniel Leeman joined us to lead holiday and Shabbat services and work in the Hebrew School.
With Cantor Leeman's departure, Beth Israel made the decision to affiliate with the Reform Movement. As we move into the future Beth Israel continues to thrive with the energy and dedication of its members and the warm support of the Bath community.