Jason Raven, left, and Glenn Giggey with Fairfield-based Sheridan Construction Corp. work last week on walls at Beth Israel Synagogue at 291 Main St. in Waterville. Amy Calder/Morning Sentinel

WATERVILLE — Beth Israel Synagogue has raised $3.3 million, with about half the money being used for a broad renovation project expected to be completed in time for Rosh Hashana services next month and an open house in October.

The improvements at the synagogue at 291 Main St. include painting throughout the building; new heating, ventilation and air conditioning and filtration systems; installation of security cameras; and creation of a mikvah, a ritual bath used to mark a variety of Jewish life cycle events, most notably conversion.

About $1.6 million of the project cost is for construction and renovations, and the rest is for funding, in perpetuity, salaries of the synagogue’s rabbi and executive director. The funds were provided by the congregation, friends of the synagogue and Colby College alumni and parents.

The mikvah, to be completed in October, is being built in the basement. For it to be kosher, it needs mayim chaim, or “living waters,” according to Rabbi Rachel Issacs, Beth Israel’s spiritual leader. The water will come from area lakes, she said.

Beth Israel Congregation was formed in 1902 and construction of its synagogue on Main Street was completed in 1958.

“There have been all of these little fixes over the past decades,” Isaacs said, “but there hasn’t been a full renovation of this building ever.”


During a tour last week of the synagogue, Isaacs noted the importance of the changes.

“When we are trying to attract new members, the synagogue speaks for us, and if we want to convey that we are a synagogue prepared to serve the modern Jewish community, then we need a modern building,” she said.

Beth Israel Synagogue at 291 Main St. in Waterville is undergoing an extensive renovation, with the work expected to be completed in time for Rosh Hashana services next month and an open house in October. Amy Calder/Morning Sentinel

There is only one mikvah open to other congregations in the state, in Bangor, so Beth Israel’s will be the second, she said. BFE Architects of Lexington, Massachusetts, was hired to build it.

“It’s very exciting, and what it means is that it’s just something else to bring people to Waterville,” Isaacs said. “And what I hope is that Beth Israel Congregation is part of the larger movement to make Waterville a cultural center in the state of Maine.”

During the five-month renovation project, which began in May, Beth Israel services have been held at various places, including people’s homes or camps, on the patio outside the synagogue and at Temple Beth El in Augusta as part of joint services, according to Isaacs.

In the synagogue’s sanctuary, she said the hand-carved pews from the 1950s will remain. The stage, or bimah, has been lowered for better accessibility for those with mobility issues. New, hand-carved furniture for the bimah was purchased from New York City, including a mahogany lectern with carved pine cones to give it a Maine feel, according to Isaacs.


Three of four 100-year-old Torah scrolls were sent to New York to be repaired by a scribe with special training, she said. The sanctuary has a fresh coat of paint and old light bulbs have been replaced with LED lighting. The floors will be buffed and waxed.

“This area will be ready for the high holidays,” Isaacs said. “By Sept. 15, we will be able to host a Rosh Hashana dinner and service. Anybody can come. They just need to RSVP.”

The service is set for 6 p.m. First Day Services are 9 a.m. to noon on Sept. 16, and Second Day Services are at the same time Sept. 17. Also on Sept. 17, Liz Lerman, a renowned choreographer, is expected to perform.

Isaacs said Lerman is scheduled to be at Colby College for the opening of the Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts on the Mayflower Hill campus. She is expected to lead services with Isaacs at the synagogue Sept. 17. The public is welcome to attend. The synagogue has also scheduled an open house for the public from 10 a.m. to noon on Oct. 15.

“People can have tours,” Isaacs said, “and everybody is welcome to see what the synagogue looks like and learn more about the Jewish community of Waterville.”

Among the other changes planned for the synagogue, two classrooms to the left and right inside the front door are to get new technology. In the synagogue’s basement, a meeting or “Hillel” room is being created that is to double as a family room, where children can play during services.

The sanctuary itself accommodates 200 people. The congregation includes about 70 families and 15 students from Colby, where Isaacs is the inaugural holder of the Dorothy “Bibby” Alfond Chair in Jewish Studies. She also is founder and executive director of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life.

“Decades of Colby alumni are loyal to Beth Israel,” Isaacs said. “They’re donating from all over the world to honor their relationship with Beth Israel Congregation and Waterville. They’re donating $50,000 for this room.”

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