Workers paint the walls inside the Maine Jewish Museum and Etz Chaim Synagogue, which sustained fire and water damage this past spring. The cloud ceiling was recently repainted. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

When congregants return to Etz Chaim Synagogue, they won’t notice many changes, other than the clouds in heaven.

The synagogue on Congress Street in Portland, which houses the Maine Jewish Museum, closed in May, not because of the coronavirus but because of an electrical fire and the need to repair water damage sustained while extinguishing the blaze. As part of the repairs, Rabbi Gary Berenson asked painters to restore clouds that had been painted into the domed ceiling years before, patterned after the tradition of painted cloud ceilings in European synagogues. Painting ceilings create the illusion of being open to blue skies, dotted with gray-white puffy clouds.

“There were clouds in the ceiling originally, years and years ago,” Berenson said. “I go back to the 1950s. I remember them.”

The clouds had faded and the paint had begun to peel when the synagogue launched a restoration project in 2009. With other costs associated with that project taking higher priority, the synagogue held off painting the clouds back onto the ceiling. “We decided to wait for some other time, and this looked like the time to do it,” the rabbi said.

The synagogue, at 267 Congress St., which is 100 years old this year, will reopen, along with the museum, on Feb. 4, presuming coronavirus regulations allow it. There are no plans for onsite religious services, but the hope is for visitors to return to the museum, in accordance with Maine CDC guidelines. Workers were painting walls and finishing other work last week in preparation.

Stained glass inside the Maine Jewish Museum and Etz Chaim Synagogue, which sustained fire and water damage this past spring and will reopen in February. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The fire happened May 20, as crews were finishing brickwork on the building’s exterior. A new air-conditioning unit had been installed the day before, and never turned on. The air conditioning and brickwork were the final pieces of a decadelong, buildingwide project, designed to culminate with the 100th anniversary, that included the restoration of stained glass, new and restored woodwork throughout and other improvements to highlight the architectural and cultural legacy of the European-style synagogue in Portland’s East End neighborhood. The museum opened in 2010.

The fire was attributed to faulty wiring behind the Torah ark, on the building’s second-floor sanctuary, which opens up to the domed ceiling above. The fire was quickly extinguished and fire damage minimal, but the water damage was extensive.

“The day after we finished our project, we had to start all over again,” Berenson said, exasperated but resigned. “With the balloon-framed construction, the fire in the wall traveled straight up. To make sure they got everything, they poured tons of water in there. The sprinklers went off, and the resulting damage was not from the fire. It was from the water.”

Rabbi Gary Berenson inside the Maine Jewish Museum and Etz Chaim Synagogue that sustained fire and water damage this past spring. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Water poured through ceilings, floors and walls on three levels. Everything was ripped out to the studs and replaced, including new wiring throughout. “Fortunately, all of the pews and wall hangings and contents were spared. To do the restoration, we took everything inside the building, boxed it up and put it into storage,” the rabbi said. “This looked like a synagogue under construction for a long time. But if you walk into the building next month, it will look pretty much like it did the day the fire occurred.”

A half-circle stained-glass window, part of the original construction and repaired during the restoration of the past decade, was damaged during the fire, with melting and cracked grass. The damaged glass has been replaced. Three chandeliers, hanging from the cloud-painted ceiling and also original to the building, are back in place with new wiring.

Berenson estimated the synagogue sustained between $1.25 million and $1.5 million in damage. Insurance and a fire-restoration fundraising campaign will cover nearly all the costs, he said. “We will come out about even and are very happy to do it,” he said.

Meanwhile, Maine Jewish Museum curator Nancy Davidson is eager to return to the exhibition space on the first floor so she can begin hanging the reopening exhibition, a group show called “Mixing It Up” with 10 artists: Sondra Bogdonoff, Reid Brechner, Linda Gerson, Joe Hemes, Jamie Johnston, Lin Lisberger, Elizabeth Ruskin, Meryl Ruth, Adrienne Sloane and Gail Spaien. Davidson and ceramacist Elizabeth Ruskin will curate the show, which will include artwork across media.

Etz Chaim Synagogue, home to the Maine Jewish Museum, on Congress Street in Portland’s East End is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

With the 100th anniversary of the building and a sense of renewal and hope following the fire, Davidson wanted to reopen with an exhibition that involved many artists. In addition, photography curator Nanci Kahn will exhibit the work of Jan Pieter von Voorst von Beest in the third-floor space, newly dedicated as the Jody S. Sataloff History and Art Pavillion, named in honor of the museum’s founding president and original board member, who recently stepped down after 12 years on the board.

After the fire, Davidson and a team of volunteers organized Maine Jewish Museum pop-up exhibitions on Washington Avenue, in the same space now occupied on a pop-up basis by Mayo Street Arts. The pop-up exhibitions were successful, drawing almost 2,500 visitors over six months – “but never more than five at a time and always socially distanced,” Davidson said. Most of the visitors were from out of state and most had never been to the museum, she said.

The pop-up exhibitions proved the value of access and exposure. “It was such a good marketing tool for the museum. People who have never been been to the museum would walk in daily,” she said.

The Maine Jewish Museum and Etz Chaim Synagogue that sustained fire and water damage this past spring and will reopen in February. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

She wants to keep the momentum going. The museum is becoming known among people of Jewish persuasion across the country and across the world. There are dozens of Jewish museums in the United States with different areas of focus. The one in Portland shows contemporary art by Jewish artists with Maine connections or artists with connections to Maine’s Jewish communities. In addition, the museum houses a photography exhibition by Jack Montgomery of Holocaust survivors who settled in Maine, as well as a permanent exhibition of Maine Jewish History and the Maine Jewish Hall of Fame.

Berenson is eager for the reopening in February. As frustrated as he was last May, when so much of his decadelong effort to restore the building seemed in vain, he is grateful.

“You can imagine my frustration. I just threw my hands up. We just spent almost 10 years doing this project, and then they started ripping everything out,” he said. “I never dreamed it would be this much damage. But here we are. It’s a labor of love. I love that building so much. It means the world to me. I am happy to do it over again, but I promise this will be the last time.”


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