In my first examiner.com article back in February I described the Jewishcommunities of Jacksonville, FL and Binghamton, NY. About a month ago my wife Shoshana and I visited Portland, ME, a hip, artsy, culturally sophisticated small city whose population of 60,000 is 25% larger than Binghamton’s, whose metropolitan area of half a million souls is double Binghamton’s, and whose Jewish population of 8,350 is nearly three quarters the size of Jacksonville’s. The entire state of Maine has a population of 1.2 million of whom 11,000 are Jewish. Maine is demographically divided between a well educated somewhat affluent coast and an undereducated quite poor and in many places Francophone interior.
Portland is located in southern Maine on scenic Casco Bay, has vibrant performing arts, anart gallery district downtown on and near Congress Street, a lovely (if small by New York standards) art museum, funky shops and boutiques on Fore Street near the waterfront, good restaurants, a Whole Foods, two art colleges, the University of South Maine, and minor league baseball and hockey teams. It’s a walkable city that combines the cultural advantages of a large city with the livable scale of a small town. Maine is this country’s whitest state, but Portland is more diverse than the rest of the state. Portland’s weather is similar to Boston’s but a tad cooler. Boating, hiking and skiing are available nearby. For the price of a two bedroom co-op apartment in a desirable Brooklyn neighborhood one could buy a four bedroom house in a desirable part of Portland or its suburbs. The service sector dominates Portland’s economy, and unemployment is around 7 percent. Where a New York family of four requires a six figure income to live comfortably in Portland that is possible on a mid to high five figure income.
Portland’s Conservative congregation, Temple Beth El, has 360 families and a K-5 day school whose tuition is a quarter of that charged by Manhattan day schools and less than half that of Brooklyn’s non-Orthodox Jewish day school. A much smaller Orthodox congregation, Shaaray Tphiloh, is a block or two away, and the Jewish Community Alliance(which combines the JCC and the Federation) is two or three blocks away. The Deering Avenue/Noyes Street neighborhood that includes these institutions is Portland’s most Jewish neighborhood. There is a larger Reform congregation, Bet HaAm, in South Portland. Efforts have been made to reorganize the formerly Orthodox Etz Chaim synagogue as a liberal minyan. Its downtown neighborhood was the center of Jewish Portland in the first half of the previous century. A local restaurant nearby is rumored to have been a brothel back then owned by a Jewish madam. There are also smaller Jewish communities in Auburn, Augusta, Bangor, and Orchard Beach. My first visit to Maine was to Auburn on a ski trip my freshman year of college. On Christmas day Auburn’s Jewish community ran the local ski resort and gave the money to UJA-Federation. Jewish Portlanders told me that Auburn’s Jewish community has shrunk and is struggling.
Only a third of Portland Jews belong to a synagogue. The majority of metropolitan Portland’s Jews are unaffiliated young adults whom its synagogues hope to attract via 20s and 30s groups and programing. According to demographic studies conducted in 2000 and 2007 35 % of Portland’s Jews identify as Reform, 14% as Conservative, 2% as Orthodox, 1% as Reconstructionist, and 48% as “just Jewish;” the latter figure is the highest percentage of any US Jewish community. At 61% Portland’s Jews have the highest the highest intermarriage rate of any American city (one such couple, the owner of LL Bean and his Jewish wife sponsored one of the studies). In intermarried families 47% of children are being raised Jewish, 26% are being raised both Jewish and another religion, and 27% are raised non-Jewish. By comparison, in Boston, MA (two hours southwest of Portland) 60% of children with one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent are raised Jewish. 70% of Portland Jews either always or usually light Hanukah candles, 60% either always or usually attend a Passover Seder, but only 13% always or usually light sabbath candles.