Serving visitors and the local community in the central part of the state
New Yorkers Laurie Tobias-Cohen and her husband, Yosef Cohen, fondly recall a memorable vacation weekend in Bangor, Maine.
Thanks to Chabad of Bangor, established two years ago by Rabbi Chaim and Esther Wilansky, they didn’t have to rush home for Shabbat during their week-long trip, which also took them to Acadia National Park and the seaside town of Bar Harbor.
The two found out about the Wilanskys’ hospitality online: The Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries rent out a room and offer guests the opportunity to join them for Shabbat meals. So Tobias-Cohen and her husband spent Shabbat (and stayed on until Monday) comfortably and well-fed.
“It was an utterly delightful few days,” says Tobias-Cohen, tells Chabad.org.
The weekend became a group affair. In addition to hosting the pair in a guest suite, the Wilanskys welcomed a family from Queens, N.Y., who needed a place to park their RV. They also invited friends of the Cohens, in town to attend a Jewish naming ceremony, for a meal, along with the family whose daughters had just been named.
The Chabad couple moved to Bangor in 2015, establishing a way station—a B&B, of sorts—for travelers looking for kosher food, a place to stay and Shabbat plans tied to visits to Acadia, a 47,000-acre recreational area that grips the rocky Atlantic Coast. They also deliver kosher meals during the week to nearby hotels. Visitors come year-round, many of them hailing from such East Coast states as New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, according to the rabbi. Israelis are also found among the tourists, drawn to the area’s spectacular hiking, scenery and quiet escape.
The rabbi, who also leads Congregation Beth Abraham, an Orthodox synagogue in Bangor, is the son of longtime Chabad emissaries Rabbi Moshe and Chana Wilansky. The elder Wilanskys, who have 13 children, have directed Chabad Lubavitch of Maine in Portland since 1987. The younger Wilansky and his wife moved two hours north of Portland—Maine’s largest city, which sits at the southern part of the state and where the Chabad center has always assisted travelers—for the chance to be a resource for Jews who reside in central Maine and those passing through it.
“It’s a small Jewish community, but every Jew is a gem,” he says. “We look at each person individually; every person is a whole world.”
Local or tourist, he and his wife, who have three children under 3 (their youngest was just born), work to ensure that Jewish needs are met. In addition to classes and Torah learning, they host Friday-night dinners, make home visits and deliver freshly-baked challah to community members.
“We like being here for other people—just being here for other Jews,” explains Wilansky, “and relaying the message stressed by the Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory], of love for a fellow Jew.”
‘A Solid Connection’
Mendel Wuensch, 22, of Brooklyn, N.Y., was one of two rabbinical students who traveled to Maine this summer as part of the Merkos Shlichus “Roving Rabbis” program, where he spent a few weeks connecting with area residents and tourists. He and Mendel Wineberg, of Manchester, England, rose early and tried to help make a minyan at Congregation Beth Abraham before hitting the road to visit community members at their homes and around town.
A stop at an area gas station led them to a Fourth of July parade, where they met more Jews as they marched with the broader population through the town’s main streets. They ended up having a bar mitzvah for a middle-aged man and talking to people about Jewish practices, like men wrapping tefillin and women lighting Shabbat candles. They also ran a public event featuring a Jewish educational video and discussion.
“We made a solid connection with approximately 30 families and met more than 100 people,” Wuensch says of their travels. “It definitely gave me a feeling that there’s very much a need for emissaries out there, and I felt more of a need for myself to become one.”
For Lisa Littlejohn and her husband, Frederick, who moved to Bangor because of a work opportunity about seven years ago, Chabad provides a sense of community and an opportunity to learn. She feels fortunate to have the Wilanskys in town; among other programs, Esther Wilansky provides the Littlejohns’ 5-year-old twin daughters with weekly private lessons in Jewish subjects and ran a weeklong summer camp that the girls attended.
Littlejohn believes that a Jewish upbringing can help give her children a solid moral foundation and a strong Jewish identity.
She’s also excited for others to learn about what Chabad has to offer. “Hopefully, the word will get out,” she says. “We’re hoping that the Jews who are here will be inspired to participate, and that more Jews will move to the area.”