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NH Jewish Community Deeply Rooted in Portsmouth

Opening the temple doors  

Temple Israel at 224 State Street remains the only conservative Jewish congregation for miles around. According to the temple Web site you have to go 50 miles to Portland, 46 miles to Peabody, 44 miles to Manchester or 3,400 miles to Ireland to find another. Barney Share, outgoing president and “unofficial historian” of the temple explains that the “conservative” Jewish service fills the middle ground between the more orthodox observance of Jewish law and the more liberal or “reform” approach to worship.  

The lack of public knowledge about Portsmouth’s proud Jewish history, Share says, was, in part, a function of the temple itself.  Considering their history, Jewish communities in the 20th century were often self protective, even defensive.  

Portsmouth from a Jewish perspective was a tolerant community, but there were always undertones,” Share says.  

“People weren’t encouraged to come in. The congregation was not encouraged to reach out. It was more of a cloistered thing in the past,” says Share, who has lived in Portsmouth for half a century. He has hopes of writing the Jewish history of Portsmouth where George Sherman left off. Unfortunately, he notes, much of the temple history before World War II is written in Yiddish.  

Today the temple doors are opening, Share says. More public concerts, speeches, and events are being held since the recent successful capital campaign that brought major changes to the community center. The renovations include an improved library for the study of Jewish history, added classrooms for the Hebrew school, expanded office and reception areas, and a redesigned social hall. Interfaith marriages, once banned, are now common in the Jewish community. As many as 400 individuals are now members.  

Time is measured at a synagogue, not as much in years, as by the teachings of the rabbis who have influenced the evolving community. Rabbi Barry Krieger, who has been on the job just two years, has been a long-time fan of Portsmouth’s heritage and cultural diversity.  

Krieger’s progressive side is evidenced from a recent Portsmouth Herald article about the 20 solar panels the rabbi has installed at the home in Greenland that he shares with his wife Dr. Alice Passer, a cardiologist. Krieger also made the news and surprised some traditionalists in the Jewish congregation when he sponsored the synagogue’s first-ever public menorah lighting during Hanukkah in 2009.  

“We’re celebrating that we are here in this beautiful spot,” Krieger says of Portsmouth and Temple Israel. “We want people to know that we’re here and that we’re a vibrant part of the community.”  

Sumner Winebaum, a former Puddledocker, businessman, and now sculptor grew up among the more orthodox rituals of Temple Israel. There is discussion, he says, about the possibility of crafting an outdoor menorah in Portsmouth, a permanent sculpture that will allow those outside the temple to share in the ritual Hanukah lighting ceremony for years to come.   

“When I was a kid it never-in-a-million-years would have entered my mind that we would share that moment with anybody. Now, I think it’s a richer experience when you can meld the old tradition with the new the way Rabbi Krieger is doing.”  

There’s more coming. This Independence Day weekend Temple Israel plans to unveil a new plaque. Portsmouth, it will announce to one and all, is home to New Hampshire’s oldest surviving synagogue.    

 

Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson writes and lectures on NH history. His books are available at local bookstores and on Amazon.com. Robinson is also editor and owner of the popular history Web site SeacoastNH.com where this column appears exclusively online. 

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News about Portsmouth from Fosters.com

Saturday, November 18, 2017 
 
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