Adas Yoshuron Synagogue - Photo By Andy O’Brien
Adas Yoshuron Synagogue - Photo By Andy O’Brien

"Once upon a time, when our grandparents and great-grandparents were knocking at America's doors, America took them in," former gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler told the members of the Adas Yoshuron Synagogue in early September as part of its 100th anniversary celebration. It was 100 years ago this fall that a small group of mostly Eastern European Jews came together to open their first official house of worship on Willow Street in Rockland. Many of them were peddlers who spoke little English, but they were determined to make a life for their families in midcoast Maine.

The Maine Settlers

Jewish roots in Maine go back a long way. Susman Abrams, the first documented Jewish resident of Maine, arrived in Waldoboro shortly after the Revolutionary War and eventually opened a tannery in Union. Then, between 1880 and 1924, it's estimated that nearly three million Eastern European Jewish refugees, approximately one third of the Jewish population in the Russian Empire, immigrated to America to escape violence and persecution.

The late Sam Small of Rockland recounted his parents' suffering during the anti-Jewish pogroms in their native Ukraine to Maine Story Bank in 2007. "My mother said no matter what we did, it was better than what we had. We had to hide from the Cossacks," he said. "They'd go through and kill us."

After serving in the Tsar's army during the Russo-Japanese War and being taken prisoner, 19-year-old William Small escaped and fled to England.

"The first thing you do is you look for a lantzman [fellow countryman]," his son Sam explained. "A lantzman is a Jewish person that you could talk to. You couldn't speak English. You didn't have a nickel, so you went to where another Jewish person could help you."

It was in England where William Small met just such a person - a woman with three young children and her brother-in-law, who was leaving to join her husband Isaac in Rockland, Maine. Minna Berliawsky told Small that she had an extra ticket straight through from England to New York, to Boston, and finally Rockland. He could pay her back when he found work. She also secretly thought he might make a good husband for one of her nieces, which he eventually did. William knew that if he established himself in America, he could send for his brothers and sisters back in the Ukraine. Minna's four-year-old middle child, whom William met that day, would grow up to be a famous sculptor known to the world as Louise Nevelson.

Around the turn of the century, Maine had become a destination point for Jewish immigrants. Some were brought by the HIAS Industrial Removal Office, while others came up on their own to the industrial towns where work was readily available. Some had also heard that Maine resembled their homelands. Whatever the reason, it wasn't long before Jewish communities appeared in the larger Maine towns like Portland, Bangor and Lewiston. By the 1870s, a small but vibrant Jewish population had been established in Rockland.

Life in a New World

"You couldn't own a business, couldn't own land, couldn't own anything," Sam said of his father's struggles in his native country. "You couldn't make a living. When they came here they struggled, but if they made a quarter, it was theirs. No one took it away. They'd pay a quarter for a meal, they'd sleep on the floor, sleep in a barn. They made a living. They saved every nickel. They were genius. You had to be."

Soon after William arrived in Rockland, he set off for Stonington, which was booming with the granite industry; but he would often visit Rockland to see the Berliawskys, who had become like family. As Sam told it, his father would buy a cow, kill it, hang it up on a tree, then borrow a horse and peddle the meat from house to house. It wasn't long before William was operating his own butchering business, but the newly arrived immigrant families certainly did endure hardships. According to Brook Kamin Rapaport's The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson, Isaac Berliawsky was bedridden with severe depression as he struggled to make a living as a woodcutter and junk dealer before eventually becoming a successful realtor and lumberyard owner. Minna Berliawsky also fell into a deep depression as she tried to adapt to her new surroundings. Nevelson recalled her mother dressing the children up in ornate clothing which would have been seen as sophisticated in the Old Country, but perhaps a bit eccentric for the conservative yankee town. One of the most difficult parts of living in remote, rural Maine was simply the isolation from everything familiar. While the men were out working, the wives struggled with the foreign culture and language, often only communicating with other Jews in their native Yiddish. According to William Small's granddaughter Barbara Fishman, after her grandmother, Minna Berliawsky's niece Rose Eval, married William Small, she grew extremely unhappy. She couldn't speak English and with only two other Jewish families in Stonington, she longed to go to New York, where there were more people she could relate to. The Smalls did move to New York for a short time, but William found it difficult to make a living so they finally returned and settled in Rockland. He founded Small's Meats in the mid-1920s, which Sam eventually took over many years later.

And things did eventually get better. Although most members of the Jewish immigrant community were quite poor when they arrived, many families moved up the economic ladder fairly quickly. As the members of Adas Yoshuron noted in their 75th Anniversary Yearbook in 1987, one need only to compare one census to the next to observe their progress from peddlers to established businessmen in just a few years. Several retail stores, a transportation service and the Strand Theatre were all founded by these early Jewish immigrant families.

Facing Adversity

By most accounts, the "Jewish colony," as they were often called, was accepted and well regarded. Beginning in the late 1870s, Rockland newspapers would include friendly messages to the Jewish community during the High Holidays. However, during the early 1900s through the 1920s, a nativist backlash toward immigrants touched off in America. In 1913, several Rockland Jews signed a petition to President Taft, urging a veto of an anti-immigration bill that would have required literacy tests for those immigrating to the US. In the 1920s, the 150,000-member state branch of the Ku Klux Klan became influential in local politics. In 1924, a wave of Klan-backed Republican candidates swept into public office, including the governor of Maine and mayor of Rockland. A 50-foot cross was burned on what is now Talbot Avenue to celebrate the election wins, followed by another cross burning on Mount Battie in Camden a year later. However, the Maine KKK was primarily anti-Catholic focused and directed most of its attention at Irish and French Catholic immigrants, a long-held prejudice with its roots in the Maine Know Nothing Party of the mid-1800s.

"There weren't enough Jews for them to be concerned with, I guess," says Barbara Fishman. "But people were very careful at that time."

The KKK's victories turned out to be short lived and by the late 1920s the Klan was in rapid decline. When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, the organization had all but vanished. The most blatant discrimination towards Maine's Jewish community was most notably the exclusion of Jews and blacks from private clubs and seasonal resorts. The issue became a heated topic of debate throughout the 1950s and '60s. Finally, in 1969 Republican Senator Peter Mills sponsored a law that effectively ended these discriminatory policies once and for all.

A Place of Worship to Call Their Own

From the beginning, religious faith played a very important role in Rockland's mostly Orthodox Jewish community. In 1879 they held their first High Holy Day observance, a tradition that continues unbroken to this day, according to Adas Yoshuron's records. As years passed and the population grew, it soon became clear that the religious services previously held in a rented space at Berry Block on Main Street would no longer suffice and they needed their own place of worship. As it happened, the Seventh Day Adventist Church went up for sale in 1912. On November 6, the former Jewish Religious Society changed its name to Adas Yoshuron, Inc. and began writing the bylaws for the new synagogue. By December they had negotiated the sale of the building for $1,800. However, considerable renovations had to be made, including the building of a balcony for the women members in order to conform to Orthodox law. Since there wasn't much money in the community at the time, a substantial amount of funds had to be raised. According to local lore, Father James Flynn, the Catholic priest in town, was key in helping with the purchase, connecting the young immigrant community to wealthy Jewish donors in New York, such as philanthropist Jacob Schiff. Previously, the community was too small to support a rabbi and laymen would conduct services, while rabbis were only brought in for special occasions. The committee decided to hire the services of a full-time rabbi with "many hats." His duties not only included leading religious services, but also kosher slaughtering of animals, teaching children Hebrew, conducting Bar Mitzvahs and weddings, and performing circumcisions.

Over the past 100 years, Adas Yoshuron has gone through many changes, but it still remains a fixture at 50 Willow Street and is just as active as ever, with five generations of families having attended the synagogue since it opened. With 31 founding families in 1912, membership flagged to around 20 families in the 1930s through the '50s, and recently has grown to over 100 memberships. In 1975, the members voted to become a Conservative synagogue, allowing women to be counted in a minyan (the quorum required for public prayer and other religious activities). Finally, in 1995 Adas Yoshuron became unaffiliated, reflecting the changing culture and demographics of the area's Jewish community, which includes members of Orthodox, traditional Conservative and liberal Conservative faiths. This fall, to celebrate its 100th anniversary, Adas Yoshuron has re-released its Midcoast Maine

Jewish Cooking cookbook and a recording of the synagogue's choir, as well as two short documentary films about the synagogue and its choir (see below).

The history of Adas Yoshuron and its founders is a distinctly American story, but not an uncommon one. At the turn of this century, the cycle has continued with a new wave of refugees arriving in Maine to escape war and suffering. As Harry Epstein's grandson Eliot Cutler told the synagogue's congregation back in September, "It will be both smart and honorable to ensure that 70 years from now the grandchildren of today's immigrants to our great state - from Somalia, Salvador, Cambodia, Haiti, Vietnam, Sudan and dozens of other nations - will be able to tell stories that sound like ours do today."

It was a message that was not lost on the descendants of Adas Yoshuron's founders.

"If America hadn't had its doors open to them, they would have probably died back in Russia and Poland; or the Nazis would have gotten them years later," Barabara Fishman said. "It's what America is supposed to do and it brought a lot of wonderful people here."