The Maine Jewish Museum and Etz Chaim synagogue prior to a May 21 fire that damaged the shared building's interior. (Courtesy Etz Chaim)
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The Maine Jewish Museum and Etz Chaim synagogue are conducting a fundraising drive after damage from a fire at their shared 132-year-old Congress Street building was found to be more significant than first thought.

The cause of the May 21 fire, where there were no injuries, remains unknown. It’s believed that an electrical wire may have arced on the second floor of the building while workers were making repairs, museum President Steven Brinn said. 

The museum and synagogue have been closed since mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic, so no people besides the construction workers were in the building when the fire happened at around 1 p.m.

Fire damage to the sanctuary at Etz Chaim synagogue in Portland in late May. (Courtesy Steven Brinn)

An initial announcement about the fire was made via email on May 22.

“The building is over 100 years old and is of wood construction,” the email sent by Rabbi Gary Berenson of Etz Chaim said. “A fire would normally spread very rapidly and could easily have consumed the entire building. We are fortunate that the sprinkler system worked beautifully and that the Fire Department responded so quickly.”

“Before we know it,” the rabbi’s message continued, “the synagogue will be back better than ever. We thank God that there were no injuries and that the damage was not much worse than it was.”

It was eventually determined, however, that the building, which was built in 1888 and extensively restored about a dozen years ago when the Maine Jewish Museum was established, suffered significant interior damage.

Most of the damage was from sprinkler system water, Brinn said last week. 

“There is extensive water damage to the building, including one of the Torahs that might not be able to be saved,” he said. “Because of water damage, the entire first floor and second floor need to be removed, and all the floors and ceilings need to be rebuilt from scratch.”

The museum features Maine Jewish artists, and “at least six paintings” were ruined, Brinn said. There was also damage to the stained glass windows at the front of the synagogue.

It’s estimated that the damage will cost around $50,000 to repair, Brinn said, and that doesn’t account for the $70,000 in revenue that the two organizations have lost during the pandemic shutdown.

“Taking a Leap,” by Meghan Nathanson, is one of the works to be displayed by the Maine Jewish Museum in its Washington Avenue pop-up starting July 9. (Courtesy Maine Jewish Museum)

The museum and synagogue are conducting a fundraising drive to restore the building and to make changes that had been in the works when the fire happened. In addition to rebuilding the walls and ceilings, they would like to add space to a community room, repaint the domed ceiling, improve office space, and add landscaping, according to an email that was sent to members on June 10. 

“We know that these are trying and unstable times for so many of us,” the email said. “But we ask that you consider us in your philanthropy plans as we do our best to restore this beautiful building that contains so much history, emotion, and meaning for so many families.”

The hope is that the building will be able to reopen in October.

In the meantime, the museum will establish a temporary location July 9 at 67 Washington Ave. The “pop-up” museum, with exhibits and sales, will operate Thursdays, Fridays, Sundays and Mondays from 11 a.m.-5 p.m., and Saturdays from 11 a.m.-6 p.m.

The first exhibits will include works by Alex Sax and Jane Sutherland, and Meghan Nathanson. Fifty percent of the proceeds from sales will go to the building revival fund.

Freelance writer Emily Duggan lives in Portland.