About half of Maine’s rabbis are women, navigating an egalitarian, small town Jewish renaissance in a state with deep roots in Judaism.
Carolyn Braun was the first woman rabbi to be hired in Maine. She arrived for her new position in late 1994, uncertain of how long she’d be at Temple Beth El in Portland or if she even wanted to be the kind of rabbi that has a congregation. Maybe she’d keep studying Judaism, which she loved. She’d gotten a Masters in Judaic Studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary before entering the seminary’s very first rabbinical class open to women. But, she says, “I wasn’t ever looking at is as, ‘I am going to come in here and I am going to make a big splash.’”
Maybe Braun didn’t create a big splash, but she did start a wave. On a late summer afternoon, she sat in Waterville’s Beth Israel Synagogue with three of Maine’s other female rabbis. They were planning to share and discuss their sermons for the late-September, early October High Holidays. But their numbers told a story of change; more than half of Maine’s non-Orthodox congregations are now led by women. There are five traditionally-trained women rabbis in pulpits, as well as a woman leading a new, unaffiliated congregation in Falmouth and a female cantor co-leading Congregation Etz Chaim in Biddeford.
“I wonder if I ever thought I would see this day,” Braun says, contemplatively. At seminary, she says, her head was down, concentrating on her books. She arrived in Maine as a California transplant who had fought hard for the equal right to don yarmulkes and the tallit (prayer shawls) during services, a right that the 13-year-olds she bat mitzvahs today often take for granted. Now Braun, 62, looks at the three women with her, Rabbi Erica Asch, 41, of Augusta’s Temple Beth El, Rabbi Lisa Vinikoor, 42, of Beth Israel in Bath and Rabbi Rachel Isaacs, 36, of Waterville’s Beth Israel, all of them wearing their prayer shawls and yarmulkes. “I know I never thought I’d be sitting here in Waterville, Maine, with these amazing people,” she says.
Women comprise the majority of graduates at Reform movement seminaries nationwide (the largest, secular Jewish denomination) paralleling the broader feminization of American religious life. It’s a huge advance, although a wage gap persists for women rabbis, including Maine’s.
Is Maine’s abundance of women rabbis exceptional? The women look at each other. It’s complicated. Some branches of Judaism (Orthodox and Chabad) still don’t allow women to be rabbis, but of those that do (including Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform), six out of 12 Maine congregations are led by women rabbis. That’s probably not the highest proportion of women rabbis in the nation, they say. But Isaacs points out that Maine does have an unusually high number of queer rabbis. She ticked them off: herself; Vinikoor; Rabbi Darah Lerner of Bangor’s Beth El; Rabbi Jared Saks of Bet Ha’am in South Portland; and the newcomer at Adas Yoshuron Synagogue in Rockland, Rabbi Lily Solochek, who identifies as transgender non-binary. “We might be the highest in the country for that,” Isaacs says.
The answers as to why include progressive politics within many parts of the state, the value of work-life balance and the outdoors, all of which draw families here. But there’s also the interconnected relationship of the state’s revitalizing rural and coastal Jewish communities. And friendships. Rabbi Vinikoor knew Isaacs, who in turn knew Saks and went to the same seminary as Braun (ordained in 2011, Isaacs was its first openly-gay Conservative rabbi). “Maine is small enough that you can actually have that kind of connection,” says Asch.
Outside a big urban center like New York, Chicago or LA, you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the country where, for a majority of Jewish kids, their image of a rabbi is not a cisgender man.”
Isaacs was drawn to what she calls Maine’s live and let live approach. “It wasn’t even that the state was liberal in the traditional sense,” she says. “It was more like when there was a discussion about hiring me because of my gender, my age, my sexuality, there was one person who raised an objection.” The rest of the board, which skewed older, she says, ended the discussion with a ‘People’s private lives are private.’ Which is a very Maine response. Which fit very well with who I am.” She’s outspoken and high profile; Isaacs delivered the invocation at the last Hanukkah reception in the Obama White House. She’s also woven deeply into the broader Waterville community. She has a joint appointment in Jewish Studies at Colby College, which pays her health insurance. (Mentoring college students, whether Jewish or not, is also core to these rabbis’ work. Rabbi Lisa Vinikoor has a quarter-time appointment directing Bowdoin College’s Hillel.) In addition, Isaacs is director of Colby’s nationally recognized Center for Small Town Jewish Life, supported by local Jewish philanthropists such as the Alfond family. The center also employs Augusta’s Asch, who serves as Colby’s Hillel advisor and Jewish chaplain.
Solochek started at the Rockland synagogue in August. “Despite the fact that it’s a state split politically, an older state, a very white state, things that in general make it conservative, at least five rabbis here are now openly queer, and that is really interesting,” says Solochek, 30, who is finishing a degree at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. “Outside a big urban center like New York, Chicago or LA, you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the country where, for a majority of Jewish kids, their image of a rabbi is not a cisgender,” Solochek says.
The one complaint Asch heard from a board member when she sat for her first annual review in 2014 underscores Maine as a pleasant place to work. “We think you’re working too much,” the board member told Asch, who now prioritizes more time in Maine’s great outdoors with her historian/Capital Area New Mainers Project co-founder husband Chris Myers Asch, and their three children: Miriam, 11, Robin, 9, and Aaron, 7. When she was an assistant rabbi at a big Reform congregation back in Washington, D.C., she notes, no one ever told her to “work less.”
DEEP ROOTS IN MAINE
The world’s oldest monotheistic religion, Judaism has only widely ordained women in recent decades. The first woman rabbi, German-born Regina Jonas, was killed at Auschwitz in 1944. It took until 1972 to ordain the world’s second woman rabbi. Here in Maine, where Jewish merchants and peddlers founded the state’s first synagogue in Bangor in 1849, Rabbi Darah Lerner, 59, became Maine’s second woman rabbi in 2005. She arrived having decamped from Los Angeles with her partner (now wife) for Reform Congregation Beth El. It’s one of three synagogues in Bangor, which Lerner describes as “amazingly Jewishly-rich when adjusted for its size.” Bangor is still home to a Jewish funeral chapel, formerly kosher, booming Bagel Central restaurant and Maine’s only functional mikvah. Though a mikvah is a ritual purification pool associated with Orthodox women, Lerner occasionally leads ceremonies there for cancer survivors, conversions and adoptions, and the mikvah now draws reclaimed feminist interest, including from colleagues like Solochek.
The synagogue is no longer the center of Jewish social life as it still was (somewhat) when Braun came to Maine a quarter-century ago—or in the congregations these women grew up in. These rabbis don’t wait for congregants to come to them. They emphasize the importance of the modern rabbi being a public figure, visible and out in the world, morally and culturally. Rabbi Laura Boenisch draws a crowd for her chocolate seders, for instance. (Boenisch followed a less traditional path to leading a congregation, first opening a school, B’nai Portland, and then training to be a rabbi through the online program Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute. She was ordained in 2016.) Braun even hosts a popular “Spirit and Spirits” happy hour the first Thursday of the month at Maine Craft Distillery in Portland. She gets up to 20 people—often as many as come to random Shabbat services—including Jews who would never darken a synagogue’s door.
But traditions continue. This month, Maine’s rabbis will work round the clock leading services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services marking the Jewish New Year. At October’s end, their congregations will wrestle with how to commemorate the first anniversary of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh. Thousands of Mainers, of all faiths and none, flocked to candlelight vigils in Bangor, Bath and Augusta in a peaceful outpouring of pro-Jewish support after that mass shooting.
“It’s a weird dynamic: it’s never been better, and it’s never been more challenging,” Lerner says. Pew Research polls show high warm public opinion of Jews, at the same time as there is a spike in anti-Semitic hate crimes, even in Maine. A month after the Pittsburgh shooting, a presumed vandal broke a window at the Minnie Brown Center in Bath, where Vinikoor leads students at an afterschool program. The synagogue’s security committee installed a new alarm system, call boxes and additional outside lighting. When a stranger interrupted a Saturday service after the Chabad of Poway shooting in California in late April, Beth Israel started locking sanctuary doors and buzzing in latecomers and held its first active shooter training. Uniformed Bath police officers now guard the lobby during bigger events.
Rates of Jewish affiliation in Maine’s smaller congregations actually feel higher than the national average. Mainers work hard to stay Jewish in authentic, committed congregations, where rabbis aren’t forced to preside over $100,000 bar or bat mitzvahs with elaborate themes.
“There’s nothing fake or for appearances here,” says Isaacs, who grew up in a predominantly Jewish, more ostentatious community on the Jersey Shore (“the Situation was in my high school”) and now relishes harvesting the bounty of the small garden plot she tends in Belgrade with her wife Mel Weiss and two young children. “Everyone, regardless of income, has the $700 bagel brunch following a b’nai mitzvah. The emphasis is on the service.”
Similarly, few of their congregants can afford the $13,500 of a traditional, summer-long Jewish camp. To lower the camp cost/access barrier, Isaacs, Asch and Weiss launched their own $5 a day Mid-Maine Jewish “Funtensive,” attended by about 30 kids, at Temple Beth El in Augusta for one week last July. It’s an extension of a modest camp Isaacs and Weiss started at a congregant’s lakehouse six years ago. It’s basic: Weiss bought all the supplies at Marden’s; they served homemade PB&J and congregation teens and Colby Jewish studies students led games to teach the kids modern Hebrew vocabulary. “We’re not worried about stealing each other’s ideas or congregants,” says Asch. “We’re stronger when we work together.”
Even with the high proportion of women rabbis in Maine, Vinikoor frequently hears (from non-Jews): “‘Oh, I didn’t know women could be rabbis.” She has increased the size and age diversity of Bath’s congregation and doubled the size of its Thursday afternoon Hebrew School. Born and raised in a similarly-sized small but proud Jewish community in Vermont, Vinikoor moved to Maine from Park Slope, New York, with her physician wife, and soon welcomed their first child, a daughter, into “one big, vibrant, seamless” synagogue family. She sees her own childhood as a religious minority in the synagogue’s elementary schoolers, and mentors them accordingly. “How can I help them navigate that and feel proud of who they are?” she says.
Maine’s natural environment and family-friendly lifestyle has lured this growing tribe of non-traditional rabbis to build careers here as they choose to stay to raise their families in deep-rooted communities. The young children of Isaacs, Asch and Vinikoor are growing up in their synagogue villages. And those villages are expanding. In Bath, Rachel Bouttenot, who grew up Catholic in Lewiston and went to Saint Dominic Regional High School, comes to services with her Jewish wife, Katherine, and their daughter Sylvie, who is almost 2. The Bouttenots stroll to nearby Beth Israel every other Friday evening for Shabbat services. When pregnant with their daughter, the couple fled the “hipster, Silicon Valley bros” taking over California’s Bay Area, settling in Bath just as Vinikoor had come to town, with her wife also pregnant with their first child. They were drawn to Beth Israel as a place to give Sylvie community and Jewish identity. As their daughter crawls into laps in the pews and waddles onto the bima with Rabbi Vinikoor during services, it’s clear they found it. “We felt so welcome and a part of a loving community,” Bouttenot says.
Laura McCandlish is a writer living in Brunswick. She is a half-Jew from Virginia’s Bible belt who hangs her doorpost mezuzahs too straight and fries her Maine potato latkes in pastured lard. Find her at @baltimoregon.