OLD ORCHARD BEACH, MAINE
By Alex Idov
Sung to the tune of ‘Tradition’ from “Fiddler on the Roof”: A shul that’s on the beach. It seems the strangest sight. It sits there on the beach, it sits there day and night. What does this mean? This shul that’s on the beach. Where did it come from and how does it survive…persistence! persistence!…
Sorry for my little song, but an Orthodox shul sitting on the beach in a small bygone beach town is truly one of the strangest sights I have ever encountered. Last summer, my father and I took a highly memorable road trip to New England (will hopefully have some more about that with Kosherology Travel). We traveled to Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, and saw many stunningly beautiful and interesting places. My father and I had to agree though, that the most interesting place we visited was Old Orchard Beach, Maine, and the little, old, white shul that sits on the sand.
While planning out our trip and trying to figure out where we could spend Shabbos in or near Maine (as that is where we were hoping to be, per our itinerary), I ran across a website which brought to my attention Congregation Beth Israel of Old Orchard Beach. Looked promising – after mentioning to someone we met in Rhode Island that we were hoping to go to Old Orchard Beach for Shabbos and were trying to get in contact with someone there who could help us make our plans (where could we stay? is there a minyan? is this a crazy idea? etc.), we were put in touch with Eber Weinstein.
Who is Eber Weinstein, you ask. Eber Weinstein, and his brother Neil are the sole forces behind Congregation Beth Israel. Having grown up visiting Old Orchard Beach during their summer vacations and having a close connection to the shul (their great-grandfather helped purchase the land the shul sits on), the Weinstein brothers decided to permanently move to Old Orchard Beach and keep their shul operating for all Jews in need of a shul, whether locals or visitors.
As it turns out, this bygone beach town of Old Orchard Beach was once a popular getaway for Jewish families, going all the way back to the 1800’s. In its heyday, Old Orchard Beach had three kosher hotels, a kosher baker, a kosher butcher, and even until fairly recently: a kosher French fry shop which attracted Jewish visitors who traveled from as far as Boston just to get these delicious boardwalk fries. Congregation Beth Israel was constructed around 1917 by a French carpenter and its design resembles that of a ship (only upside down.) It has served as the beach’s center for those seeking traditional Orthodox services ever since and at one point in time, there was standing room only on Shabbos. In the 1960’s, when airfare and other means of travel started becoming more affordable, visitors stopped coming to Old Orchard Beach, much like that which happened to the Catskills. The glory days of Jewish Old Orchard Beach was no longer.
The shul has since been sitting on the seven-mile stretch of Old Orchard Beach, surrounded by a dozen old seaside beach motels, nonkosher restaurants and bars, souvenir/ t-shirt shops, and a good old fashioned amusement park and arcade by the boardwalk (the good old games I remember from arcades when I was a kid.) There is no pulpit rabbi of the shul, but rather all services are led by Eber and visitors to the shul. When we were there, we were fortunate to have a minyan for every service on Shabbos. Also visiting Old Orchard Beach this same weekend were a couple from Boston, a couple from Baltimore, two teenaged kids from New York, and a family from Montreal who had no idea there was a shul in the beach town they decided to visit over Shabbos.
All of these visitors had a hand in adding to the unique Shabbos atmosphere and many helped with leading davening. I even led Shabbos morning shacharis for the first time since my bar mitzvah, as well as Maariv motzei Shabbos (following Shabbos). After Shabbos my father and I took a walk down to the boardwalk arcade and to the pier, which was bustling with nightlife activity. As we left Old Orchard Beach (or OOB, as its abbreviated on the sweatshirt I bought from a souvenir shop) we left with visions of a wonderful, memorable shabbos, the town in its vibrant past with tons of Jewish families enjoying themselves while strolling along the boardwalk, and a hope to return to this gem in the near future.
Alex Idov is a kosher, food blogger who runs the award-winning site ‘Kosherology’ and a regular contributing food columnist to The Five Towns Jewish Home magazine, LA Jewish Home magazine, and the Atlanta Jewish Times. He is currently studying for his bachelor’s degree in Culinary Sustainability & Hospitality at Kennesaw State University. Visit ‘Kosherology’ at www.exploretheworldofkosher. com and like ‘Kosherology’ on Facebook