The Portland Jewish Community

I thought many of my readers might be interested in what it’s like to go from Israel to a very small Jewish community. Portland has the largest Jewish population in North New England (Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont), but that’s not saying much. The number I have for Jewish households in Southern Maine from the 2007 Portland Maine Jewish community study is 8,000 Jews in 4,000 households. (You can see the intermarriage rate right there.) I think about half of them live in Portland itself. Southern Maine as a whole has about half a million people in it and Portland itself about 66,000.

Being Jewish in Israel is more like being Jewish in Cleveland than it is in Portland, and I’ll tell you why. Would you like to know what the second largest Jewish population is, outside of Israel? Beachwood, OH, at an astounding 90% Jewish (according to Wikipedia). Squirrel Hill, the Jewish neighborhood of Pittsburgh where my husband grew up, is 40% Jewish. Portland is no more than 6% Jewish, which is not too shabby, but the community is highly unaffiliated and the intermarriage rate is the highest in the country.

(I’m not sure I trust the numbers I’m looking at in Wikipedia, actually. It reports that Haifa has 700,000 Jews, but actually, the city is only 270,000 people, of which 10% are Arab, and even if you count the whole metropolitan area you only get to 600,000 people. However, that doesn’t affect my main point.)

In any case, living in a small Jewish population in America is new for us, regardless of having lived in Israel. Obviously Israeli customs are different from American ones, but in Cleveland it is possible to have mostly Jewish friends and to choose from a number of organizations that all follow the Jewish calendar. The feeling you get is of being surrounded by Jews and Jewish life. Israel is obviously more so…you can choose to be religious or not, but you are always surrounded by the rhythms of Jewish life. In Cleveland you have to choose that kind of life, but it’s available if you want it.

In Portland there are very few “games in town.” If you don’t like an organization, you have very few options. On the other hand, you do have more of a say in how an organization can meet your needs. There is no such thing as “take it or leave it” because there aren’t so many other places people can go to have their Jewish needs met. Jews and Jewish life are not all around you.

When Jeff came to New Hampshire for his interview, he spent a Shabbat in Portland to make sure that it was a viable option for us. He came back reporting to have met “everybody” in the Jewish community, and for all intents and purposes it was a true statement. He met everybody who comes regularly on Shabbat to the two synagogues near us, and at the Levey Day School he met the principal and teachers. (The Conservative synagogue, where the Jewish day school is housed, is across the street from our apartment, and the Orthodox synagogue is around the corner.)

The Jewish community is very liberal, and I’m not sure if it’s a consequence more of its size or of the fact that Portland itself is very liberal. If we wanted to be fully, 100%, shomrei shabbat, we probably wouldn’t be able to live here. There are certainly people who are, but their numbers are very very small.

The question is, how do we like it? So far we’ve met some families we click with, and we’ve succeeded in organizing children’s services for Rafi and the other preschool child in the synagogue. We’ve found out where to buy kosher meat (Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s). Rafi is enrolled in the Levey Day School for the coming school year although we’ll have to see what direction the school is headed in for the long term. The Judaics curriculum is weak, but this year there is a new headmaster and the Judaic Studies/Hebrew teacher may or may not be leaving after this year.

It’ll be interesting to see how it all goes. For now I’ll say we basically like it. It helps that Portland in general is an extremely livable city.

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4 thoughts on “The Portland Jewish Community

  1. That you say “the other preschool child in the synagogue” says something about the size of the community. Are the numbers greater in either of the other 2 options?

  2. There are other preschool aged kids — they just don’t come on Shabbat morning (you’ll see more at the Friday night family dinners). And the reform shul has tons of kids — we’re always amazed every time we’re at an event there how many kids there are. (Hi, Abby, this is Sara.)

    • Hi Sara! Thanks for the tip. Yes, we came to the PJ library Shabbat dinner and there were other preschool aged kids there. I’m assuming July and August are lean months for family events.

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