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Greta Rybus

Greta Rybus is a photojournalist and photo editor living in Portland. She started her blog, “Who I Met," as a way to begin juicy conversations with interesting people she meets. The blog has migrated with her from Montana, Europe, and, finally, to her new and dearly-loved home in Maine. You can see more of her work at www.gretarybus.com

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Posted: October 7, 2014

Ani Helmick – executive director of the Maine Jewish museum

Written by: Greta Rybus
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This past weekend was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jewish people. Etz Chaim Synagogue, at the base of Portland’s Munjoy Hill, was likely filled to capacity, busting with people and echoing with prayer. Just a few years ago, it wasn’t this way. The historic synagogue had become derelict and its future was uncertain. The space was revitalized and reinvented to become the Maine Jewish Museum: equal parts gallery, day school, museum, and house of worship. Ani (pronounced like Annie) is the organization’s executive director, at the helm of making it what it is now and what it will become. She works at a desk in the corner of a small downstairs chapel, under the glow of a stained-glass window and surrounded by old books that date back to when the first Jews came to Maine.

WHAT DOES YOUR WORK ENTAIL?

That’s not easy to answer. As a fledgling organization, we operate on a shoestring budget. The executive director needs to have an across-the-board skill set. I’m the only person on staff, plus a curator who is in a grant-funded position and several committed volunteers. I give guided tours, plan cultural programming, supervise interns, conduct historic research, plan future exhibitions, do the graphic design, and of course write grants and do fundraising. Just about everything you can think of! But one of the most important aspects of my work is to be welcoming to whoever walks in the door. Not only do we have visitors who are Jewish and curious to learn about the Jewish history of Maine, there are many visitors who have never been in a synagogue; there might be a little bit of fear when they walk in the door. To me, that first experience is really important in making a human connection. Unlike other museums where you wouldn’t find the executive director greeting people, that’s an important part of my role.

 

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CAN YOU TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE HISTORY OF THE JEWISH COMMUNITY IN MAINE?

It’s very similar to what you would find in other places in America. Most of the Jews who came to Maine arrived during the late 1800s. They were leaving Eastern Europe because of pogroms and the threat of being conscripted into the Tsar’s army. There was a big push to escape. The immigrants arrived with nothing and usually started out as junk dealers. If you look through the census records from the early 1900s, you’ll see their occupation listed as “Junk Dealer” or “Peddler.” They would collect what somebody else would consider a throwaway, clean it up or fix it, and then go out into the countryside and sell it. Once they were able to save some money, they became merchants, shopkeepers, fruit sellers, scrap metal dealers. Peddlers traveled throughout Maine up to the Canadian border and ended up settling little enclaves of Jewish communities. Over time, their landsman – fellow villagers from their native country – if somebody from their village back home was coming they’d say, “Oh, well come to my town.” So Waterville, Lewiston-Auburn, Augusta and Rockland and Bangor all had Jewish communities. Also, Bath and Old Orchard, Gardiner and Old Towne, even Presque Isle. Jews in Maine eventually became involved in every aspect of life in their communities – not only as merchants, but in the arts, in civic leadership. Maine Jews have served as judges, lawyers, doctors, even a Nobel Prize winner. Their philanthropy can be seen in colleges, hospitals, and museums throughout the state. All from very humble beginnings.

TELL ME ABOUT YOUR HISTORY IN MAINE. HOW FAR BACK DOES YOUR HISTORY GO?

Only seven years! I’m from away. I grew up in Pennsylvania; I left when I was 18. I lived in Iowa, Jamaica, New York, and California where I met my husband. We got married, lived in Mexico, New Orleans, and Pennsylvania. We ran a business together, even though my education was in art and art therapy. It was something we got into almost by accident and then couldn’t get out of for a long time. It was like taking a wrong turn on a Boston street… You think you’re going to turn around and get back on track, but you just can’t. That’s what it was like for 20 years. When we got out of it finally, we said, “Let’s go somewhere where we want to be and create a new life.” We had both been to Maine and loved it so we decided to move here. It’s the first place I’ve lived that really feels like home. When I first came, I was operating a freelance business where I interviewed people about their life stories, as a way to create a lasting legacy. The finished product was a book for their families. It was very meaningful work for me, but I wanted to make it more accessible because it’s expensive for clients. Coincidentally, I saw a little ad in a newspaper seeking volunteer interviewers for a Jewish oral history project and I thought, “I can do that, I’d like to get involved.” I became an interviewer for this project that was part of an organization called “Documenting Maine Jewry.” Eventually I became more involved working for them. About three years ago, Documenting Maine Jewry and the Maine Jewish Museum submitted a grant application for a staff-person to be shared by both organizations. I applied for the job and got it. That’s how I became special project director here. By the next year I was working full time for the museum as assistant director, and then became executive director last March.

WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM YOUR EXPERIENCES INTERVIEWING SO MANY PEOPLE AND GATHERING THEIR LIFE STORIES?

I started that work on the tail end of going through a difficult personal time. On some level, I was searching to understand how people make sense of their lives. It was part of my quest and I was fervent in wanting to understand. I guess I’ve learned how similar we all are. We want love, we want to be appreciated, we want to be able to give and make a meaningful contribution and want to feel that our life has made a difference. That can be in very, very small ways or it can be large-scale. I’ve also learned that change is so much a part of life; we have the capacity to change even long into what we would consider our declining years. For some, it’s the time when they feel like they’ve reached their greatest power.

 

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IS THERE ANYTHING YOU FEEL LIKE YOU’VE LEARNED FROM THE PEOPLE YOU COME INTO CONTACT WITH THROUGH THE MUSEUM AND THE SYNAGOGUE?

In the past week, visitors have come from South Africa and Ukraine, Israel, France, and Chile. People come from all over the world and throughout the U.S., and of course there are many locals. We have those who have grown up here and those who have never been in a synagogue. I have found people tend to be really open and receptive, and this is a place where there can be a welcome exchange of ideas. I really value that. I’ve enjoyed being part of it and encouraging it to unfold. Every situation, exhibit, and program evokes so many different responses and points of view. Rather than just black and white, there are so many shades in between. I just appreciate seeing the play of human thought and emotion and curiosity.

TELL ME ABOUT THE MUSEUM ASPECT OF THIS PLACE

On the third floor, (what was once the “women’s balcony” of the previously Orthodox congregation) there are panels on the history of Jews in Maine. We’re starting to develop a timeline and a history of early Jewish families dating back to the late 1870s and 80s to find out more about those who settled Portland’s Jewish community early on, the impact they made, where they migrated from and then perhaps migrated to. More in-depth exhibits are planned for this space in the future.

On the second floor is the main sanctuary of the synagogue. I consider the architecture itself to be a museum, because it tells a story. The immigrants who worshiped here were working class and that is reflected in the modest design. You’ll see it’s not opulent, not the kind of place where you would say “no expense was spared.” They did whatever was most cost-effective. They even brought in pews from a church that was being decommissioned. The building itself preserves the history, and it’s up to us to reveal more of what it contains.

On the first floor, going up to the second floor, we have changing exhibits of contemporary artists who have some kind of a Maine Jewish connection. The exhibits change every two months. Nancy Davidson is our curator and she’s created some very exciting exhibitions. We’re already booked through 2017.

We also have cultural programming: concerts, lectures, live theater. Because we’re a small organization, we can be a little bit outside the box. People come through the door all the time with ideas for programs or exhibits. If they bring their creativity and inspiration, if they have an idea for something that would fit with our mission and they’re willing to help bring it to fruition, then I’m there to help facilitate that in happening. We’ve had some really interesting programming as a result.

TELL ME ABOUT THE SYNAGOGUE ITSELF

Yes, this is not only the Maine Jewish Museum but it’s also the synagogue with an active congregation. This has been a synagogue since 1921 – operating continuously, but sometimes just barely. It was in a steady state of decline for about 50 years. Even though it wasn’t boarded up, people thought it was. Even so, prayer services were still being held here, though just in the small chapel. When a group got together in 2007 and talked about restoring the building, they imagined there wouldn’t be an interest in reviving the congregation because there are already others. That’s when they had the idea to turn it into a museum – a museum of Jewish art, history, culture. There was nothing like that in Maine. They could restore the building and preserve the stories that are here. A surprising thing occurred. On the first High Holidays after the restoration was done, 300 people showed up. Suddenly they realized this could be a viable congregation. Gary Berenson had been the lay leader, conducting services for years, and also had been the founding executive director of the museum. In response to the growing interest for this “new” unaffiliated congregation, he went for formal training and became ordained – just two months ago – as a rabbi. So he now is the rabbi of the congregation and I – about three months ago – became executive director.

 

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WHAT IS IT LIKE TO HAVE BOTH OF THOSE FUNCTIONS UNDER ONE ROOF?

Well we’re still figuring it out – in a way we’re both fledgling organizations. The congregation is in its new life and the museum is only a few years old. There are two separate boards and this model serves us well. In some ways, it’s just a matter of scheduling: the museum is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., then there are Hebrew classes that start later in the afternoon, and the congregation has services on Saturday mornings and holidays. We even allow other groups to use the building during times when it’s available. The space is quite beautiful and, I think, sacred. The idea of being a gathering place that’s welcoming to all, where you can learn and be together in community, is a similar mission for both organizations. We just make it work together.

WHAT WAS THE HISTORY OF THIS BUILDING?

Actually, from what I understand, this was a six-unit apartment building before 1921 when it was purchased and converted to a synagogue. It’s hard to imagine it as apartments, you can’t tell as you’re walking through it. At that time there were three Orthodox synagogues within three blocks of here. In 1904 the first real synagogue was built – when I say real I mean built for that specific purpose – on Newbury Street. The building is still standing, just off the corner of India Street. It’s a condo office building now. However, it was not the earliest synagogue. There were several earlier ones. Often the men would congregate upstairs in someone’s home or a small side room of a shop. There was a one-room structure known as the Deer Street Shul. Deer Street doesn’t even exist anymore.

HOW DOES YOUR OWN FAITH INFLUENCE YOUR WORK?

An interesting question. I’m very much a secular Jew, not observant, except for the major holidays. And though I don’t ascribe to any particular denomination (neither conservative nor reformed and certainly not Orthodox), I identify deeply as Jewish. It’s part of my cultural heritage and my culinary heritage. I value the traditions that have been passed down to me and that I carry on. I hear a similar description from many of our visitors as well.

I think that a lot of what we do here at the museum is to address what it means to be Jewish in all of its different personal responses that people have. It’s one of the things we explore with the artists that show their work here: How has your Judaism impacted you? What does it mean to you to exhibit in the Jewish museum? For some people it’s like coming home in a way and it’s very meaningful, and for others it might just be another venue. Our mission is to build bridges of understanding with people of all backgrounds. I think my openness helps facilitate that. With our cultural programming, we can ask some of the big questions, not necessarily Jewish in nature, but that have to do with our connections to one another. It’s about how we find meaning. I think you can do that through the arts, through stories, and by taking a closer look at the past. I’d say that my Judaism is the starting point for me, it informs my worldview, but I also find commonality beyond that, which is important to building bridges.

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WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU AS A PERSON?

Ultimately, I would say to love.

WHAT IS A LESSON THAT YOU’RE LEARNING IN YOUR LIFE OR HAVE LEARNED RECENTLY?

Life is never what you might have expected it to be, so jump in and find the joy. It’s a choice.

WHAT IS THE GREATEST GIFT OR BLESSING IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW?

It has to do with the moment where I find myself in the trajectory of my life. Within the past few months, my daughter left for college and my step-daughter had a baby, so I’m a new grandma. Our beloved Golden Retriever of 13 years died. My mother is elderly and I recognize her time is finite. I would say the biggest blessing I have right now is just an ability within myself to find clarity and realize what’s important. I’m at peace in the midst of great change.

WHAT IS THE GREATEST STRUGGLE?

The greatest struggle now is the greatest struggle I’ve always had: time management. I can never fit in all the things I would like to fit in. I always feel like I’m behind and that I don’t give the kind of care and attention to everything and everyone I would like to because I fill my plate with too much.

IF YOU HAD A MOTTO OR MANTRA IN YOUR LIFE, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

Breathe.

WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?

A good cup of tea and seeing the world outside my window – the sky, the Observatory, and beyond that, amazing Casco Bay.

Check out the museum and synagogue here: www.mainejewishmuseum.org

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