Sister Shuls: Etz Chaim in Portland Maine

Etz Chaim Synagogue on a snowy winter’s day.

In “Sister Shuls,” we travel virtually to other synagogues whose exuberant architecture has a kinship with our landmark home, the Eldridge Street Synagogue.

Today, for the first time in Sister Shuls, we’re travelling within the United States! We’re stopping much closer to home than usual, as we touch down in Portland, Maine at the Etz Chaim Synagogue. My dear friend Hanna Griff-Sleven, who knows Eldridge well, suggested this trip. She has fond memories of going there as a child with her grandfather, Reverend Harry Simansky. She says that whenever she returns there, Etz Chaim always reminds her of Eldridge Street.

Etz Chaim (which means Tree of Life) was founded as a result of a dispute within another Portland congregation. The Rabbi, Chaim Shohet, disagreed when the congregation’s board dismissed a popular cantor. “According to popular legend,” reports the Etz Chaim website, “at one point the Rabbi’s chair was removed from the sanctuary and placed in the bathroom in protest!” Rabbi Shohet was ultimately dismissed over the dispute, and some members of the congregation followed him as he started a new congregation. In 1920, they purchased a building at Congress and India Streets in the downtown Portland historic district. Like Eldridge’s Lower East Side location, the Portland neighborhood housed many Jewish immigrant families at the turn of the 20th century.

The congregation purchased the building for $10,000 – big bucks in 1921. Unfortunately Rabbi Chaim Shohet passed away that same year; his congregation renamed itself Etz Chaim in his honor. The new synagogue was dedicated on June 4, 1922.

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The facades of Etz Chaim in Portland, Maine (left); and the Eldridge Street Synagogue in New York City (right).

The façade of the Portland synagogue is much simpler than Eldridge Street. Our landmark building is large and was designed as a house of worship. But Etz Chaim is a converted boarding house that had previously been home to six families from the city’s Irish community. (The building had probably been erected in the flurry of new development that followed when a great fire destroyed much of Portland in 1866.) Even though the Etz Chaim congregation wasn’t able to build a grand shul to their own specifications, they were purposeful in the adaptation of their new-to-them building. Etz Chaim had high ambitions for their transformation. Their building got three new courses of windows across its façade, with an elaborate stained-glass window at the top – just like at Eldridge Street, if on a more modest scale.

These days, our two buildings share a common purpose – museum exhibitions are housed in the lower level of both historic spaces. The ground floor in Portland is now the Maine Jewish Museum, founded in 2010. Their exhibitions explore Jewish history in Maine and host eclectic art shows. Just like at Eldridge, the historic main sanctuary at Etz Chaim is on the second floor. A women’s balcony lines the second story.  Let’s take a look around.

Inside Etz Chaim (left); Inside Eldridge Street (right).  

Both synagogues have elaborate carved wooden arks to hold the congregation’s Torah scrolls. (The ark at Etz Chaim was a gift of the congregation’s sisterhood.) Both are topped with images of the Ten Commandment tablets. And on the corners of the bimah – the reader’s platform – we find tall torchiere lights in both New York and Portland.  

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Tall torchiere lights stand at the corners of the bimah (reader’s platform) at both Etz Chaim (left) and Eldridge Street (right).

The stained glass at Eldridge Street is more elaborate, but there is something about the look of the arched glass behind the ark at Etz Chaim that gives the space a similar feel. The colors are soft, almost pastel in many places. And there’s a sense of light, airiness and reaching for the heavens.

There are stained-glass windows behind the top of the ark at both Etz Chaim (left) and Eldridge Street (right). 

Another similarity between the two shuls is an unfortunate one. Both have faced serious restoration projects. At Eldridge, our work has been completed. A 20-year, $20 million restoration project that brought the neglected synagogue back to its original glory. At Etz Chaim, the work is just starting. On May of this year, an electrical fire broke out during a construction project. The building’s sprinkler system quickly extinguished the fire, but there was extensive water damage. Even the walls and ceilings must be replaced, but they are determined to restore the sanctuary and have started raising fund for the work.

When all is said and done the thing that really makes these two shuls sisters is their heimishness – their warm and welcoming homey-ness.  We wish the people of the Etz Chaim Synagogue the best in the new year, and success with their big project. We know how daunting it is to face such an extensive restoration. But like the Eldridge Street community, the people at Etz Chaim are dedicated to preserving their building so that future generations can worship, visit and enjoy and learn about Jewish life in their corner of the world.

Nancy Johnson is the Museum at Eldridge Street’s Archivist and Exhibition Curator.

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