WATERVILLE — In the shadow of an unprecedented terrorist attack on Israel, Waterville’s Jewish community gathered Sunday morning at the Beth Israel Synagogue with a distinct sense of resolve.

Congregants and community members gathered at the synagogue to celebrate the near completion of more than $1.6 million in renovations to the congregation’s building. The improvements are part of a campaign that has raised about $3.4 million for renovations and other needs.

Although the gathering ended with prayers for the lives lost in Israel, Rabbi Rachel Isaacs said the renovation is symbolic of the work being done in central Maine and around the world to strengthen Jewish communities during a time of anguish.

“The renovation is really a representation of the fact that we believe that we need to be equipped for another century of Jewish life in Waterville, Maine,” Isaacs said. “This is a moment that is profoundly bittersweet for our community, because as we are celebrating the Jewish life of central Maine and our Jewish future, we are also in a deep and profound sense of mourning for our family that has been murdered in Israel.

Melanie Weiss slides a mantle over a Torah scroll Sunday morning that has been repaired as part of a campaign that has raised about $3.4 million for renovations and other needs at Beth Israel Synagogue at 291 Main St. in Waterville. Congregants got a close look at the scroll that is more than 100 years old. A new Torah reading table and lectern have also been built as part of the improvements. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“This is a moment of grief, of solidarity, but also joy.”

Originally built in 1958 and largely untouched since, the improvements to the synagogue at 291 Main St. have been necessary and extensive, Isaacs said.


The building received new accessibility accommodations; new floors, walls and ceilings; a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC, system; a revamped security system; and, most important, the creation of a mikvah, a ritual bath used to mark a variety of Jewish life cycle events, most notably conversion.

There are only two mikvahs in Maine: One in Portland, the other in Bangor. Sandy Maisel, Beth Israel’s funding committee chair, said the decision was made to build a new mikvah to accommodate Jewish communities in central Maine and beyond.

“We wanted to have a mikvah in Waterville that would be a mikvah for all the citizens of Maine that want to use it,” Maisel said. “It is housed here, but it will be open to any of the congregations in the state of Maine that want to use it.”

Beth Israel’s new mikvah is indicative of the congregation’s spiritual thinking, project architect Gerry Frank said. Mikvahs, which are typically used by women and converts, are often used exclusively by Orthodox Jews. Beth Israel’s mikvah is different, Frank said, in that it is to be open to all.

Rabbi Rachel Isaacs, bottom, speaks Sunday morning at Beth Israel Synagogue at 291 Main St. in Waterville about repairs made to the Torah scroll as congregation members file past for a close look at the scroll that is more than 100 years old. A new Torah reading table and lectern have also been built and other improvements made as part of a campaign that has raised about $3.4 million for renovations and other needs. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

While his architecture firm has worked on mikvahs and religious projects before, Frank said Beth Israel’s approach was unique.

“There was just an idea of having a new concept of how mikvahs can be used,” Frank said. “The power of water in terms of rejuvenation. It’s your chance for self-reflection or almost thinking about where you are in the world and your relationship to it. There is something really transformative about water.”


In addition to the updates made to the building itself, special effort has also been made to beautify the space. Within the synagogue’s large prayer hall, six tiled artworks recanting Jewish tradition, history and culture adorn the walls beside rows of pews.

Courtney Sparks, the leader of Beth Israel’s art committee, said the art pieces are just one element of the synagogue’s larger push to decorate its spaces with nods to its past.

“In each space, we’ve been thinking about the collective history of Waterville, Colby (College) and between members old and new,” Sparks said. “What we would like to do is focus on the history of this congregation and the community the shared journey of the congregation. And ways that we can do that is to adorn the walls with photos of past rabbis of this congregation.

“We’re going to be lining those walls with our history.”

The sense of history and community at Beth Israel is important for central Maine’s Jewish community in the face of rising antisemitism in Maine, Isaacs said, and the latest Israel-Hamas war oversees.

The gathering Sunday morning ended with a series of prayers for peace, unity, the more than 1,300 Israelis killed in Hamas’ initial Oct. 7 attack, the more than 3,000 people on both sides who have been killed in the days since and for the survivors still living in terror.

“It is tempting in the moments of our extreme grief and in a rage and in our fear to dehumanize others in this conflict, in particular, those Palestinians who are not members of Hamas that are suffering immensely at this moment,” Isaacs said.

“We are all created equally in the image of God. And so like many other moments in Jewish history, we hold the desire and the necessity to infer the dignity of every human life and also to mourn the unique loss that comes from being a member of the Jewish family.”

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