BANGOR – When the ram’s horn was blown on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, members of the city’s only Orthodox synagogue marked more than just the beginning of a new year.
They were celebrating the arrival of their new rabbi.
Fred Nebel and his family had not even finished unpacking when observance of the High Holidays began Monday night.
The 41-year-old rabbi has spent the past seven years teaching at Hebrew day schools in Providence, R.I., and Boston. Day schools are similar to Catholic and Protestant parochial schools.
In the late 1980s, he served as rabbi, or spiritual leader, to a congregation in Moncton, New Brunswick.
“I’ve been working full time in education since 1988,” said Nebel shortly after he arrived in Bangor. “My real love, however, is in the pulpit. I enjoy it much more.”
Nebel is the second rabbi in 26 months to serve Beth Abraham, the only Orthodox synagogue in northern Maine. He succeeds Rabbi Boaz Tomsky, 28, who arrived in Bangor in July 1999. Earlier this summer, his contract with Beth Abraham was not renewed. Louis Kornreich, president of the synagogue, did not return phone calls before deadline about the change in rabbis.
Tomsky succeeded Rabbi Henry Isaacs, who served the Orthodox community in Bangor for almost 40 years. A formidable presence in the region, Isaacs for 20 years was principal of the city’s only Hebrew day school, which served pupils in kindergarten through eighth grade. He now lives in Israel.
Nebel grew up in Stoughton, Mass., where his family worshipped at a Conservative synagogue and attended public schools. While a student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Nebel decided he wanted to delve into the Torah. The Conservative rabbi connected with Hillel, the Jewish student organization on campus, did not have time for him, said Nebel, but the Orthodox rabbi at the local synagogue did.
“I grew up in a Conservative community, and there seemed to be no reason for what we were doing,” he said. “People seemed to be doing many of the rituals by rote. … Orthodoxy made sense to me. It is built on strong pillars. For me, it was purely an intellectual choice.”
Nebel is a cohain, or Kohan, which means his ancestors are descended from Aaron, Moses’ brother. The cohain were members of the priestly caste who conducted services in the temple and performed animal sacrifices, according to Nebel.
All male descendants of Aaron are in the cohain caste, the rabbi explained, but the knowledge that he was a member was handed down orally through his family. He did not do a genealogical search to trace his roots back to Aaron. While the surname Cohen is derived from cohain, all Cohens are not members of the priestly caste. said Nebel.
Because he is a cohain, Nebel is forbidden from being in the same room with a body and from standing at the graveside with the casket. He said that while some accommodation would need to be made, the fact that he is a cohain would not stop him from conducting funerals.
After graduating from UMass., Nebel attended Yeshiva University, where he earned a master’s degree in education.
In addition to teaching, Nebel worked in the food service industry as a kosher supervisor, a job he will continue in a much smaller way at Bagel Central, the city’s kosher deli.
The rabbi, whose son and daughter are both under age 3, said he did not know whether there was another Hebrew day school in Bangor’s future. He said that if such a school were possible, it would have to include children from all four Jewish traditions – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist – which might “be difficult but not impossible.”
“My dream is to have a free day school wherever I am so that money would not be an impediment for any Jew who wanted to attend. It would be nice if a community could afford to support such a system without charging exorbitant prices for tuition. The school I’ve taught in charged between $8,000 and $10,000 a pupil.”
It is his love of learning that Nebel wants to share with his congregation, Maine’s Jewish community and the larger community as well, he said. In the Jewish tradition, rabbis are teachers. They study the Torah and Jewish law handed down through the centuries.
“I became a rabbi to help other people learn the beauties of Judaism,” he said. “In the process, I learned and continue to learn the beauties of Judaism.”