While Congregation Beth Israel is the oldest continuously functioning synagogue in Maine, it was not the first in Bangor. Around 1840, a group called Ahavas Achim (Society of Brotherly Love) was formed; it lasted close to 20 years. The only physical remnants are the cemetery on Webster Avenue and some of the original records now at the Bangor Public Library.
In the mid-1880s, there were enough religious Jews, new to Bangor, and from eastern Europe, to form a loose association for religious purposes. For a formal service to be held a quorum (or minyan) of ten men was required. It is known that in 1884 a Torah scroll was borrowed from a Boston synagogue so that the biblical readings could be accomplished on a regular basis. It must be assumed that services had been held before that and certainly on a regular basis after the arrive of the biblical scroll.
A new Jewish cemetery was established in 1884 by the local chapter of the Independent Order of the Sons of Benjamin. It was not unusual for fraternal lodges to be formed with one of its functions being the creation of a cemetery. In Boston today, many of the Jewish cemeteries are still maintained by such organizations, although the fraternal order part of their origin no longer functions. That cemetery land, for which the Order paid to City of Bangor $45.00, was taken over by Beth Israel in 1907.
The Congregation was formally organized in 1888. The years that followed saw a rapid growth in the United States, and Bangor, of the Jewish population, primarily as a result of increased governmental and government-inspired anti-Semitism in Europe, including the infamous Pogroms. About 16 members attended the organizational meeting of Beth Israel at the home of Lemke Allen in 1888. Mr. Allen was the first, or certainly one of the first, eastern European Jews to arrive in Bangor. Many people remember the Allen Pharmacy downtown formed by his descendants. A fifth generation Allen has recently moved away.
Others included Philip and Nathan Hillson (and there are Hillsons in Old Town), Joe Byer (possibly related to the subsequent Byer Manufacturing in Orono,) and Solomon Harris. There may well be other descendants of the 1888 group.
Rented quarters were used at first for services.
The cornerstone of the first synagogue in Maine was laid on August 22, 1907 on Center Street. The building rose rapidly and was in use in October and dedicated formally on December 19, 1907.
At the laying of the cornerstone, the prayers were in Hebrew, but The Daily Whig and Courier reported a prayer was offered by the local rabbi in the “Hindoo language.”
The building was destroyed in the great Bangor fire of April 30, 1911. The second synagogue, the present structure, was started in 1911 and dedicated in 1912.
At the time of the reconstruction in 1911-1912, Abraham Berson was president (his granddaughter, Marcia Lieberman, is still an active member in our community). The treasurer was A.B. Friedman. Mr. Harris was secretary and B. Kamenkovitz was the first gabbai (lay leader).
The synagogue remained orthodox until 1948 when it committed itself to the Conservative Movement with which it is affiliated until today.