We heart these people

By JEFF INGLIS  |  February 10, 2010


Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld

Even if you've never met RABBI AKIVA HERZFELD, when you call to introduce yourself, you might be invited to a Portland Pirates hockey game with the BlackBerry-toting leader of Portland's oldest orthodox Jewish community, Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh.

It's that sort of cognitive dissonance that makes him particularly well suited to be here now. While Herzfeld speaks about his elders, Jewish tradition, and the history of his people with deep respect and feeling — not least because his grandparents fled from the Nazis with his infant father — his eyes are clearly looking ahead, not backward. His congregation, he says with a smile, are "traditional, more than orthodox," perhaps "a little bit more liberal" than their fellow believers in larger cities, such as the Staten Island, New York, community where he grew up.

He works to connect the generations — allowing older members of his congregation to continue in aspects of Jewish life they have long found meaningful, while also reaching out to young people — as in his annual college-student get-together at Shaarey Tphiloh, when he invites Jewish students from colleges around Maine and New England to spend a weekend at the synagogue (and attend a hockey game with other congregation members, young and old).

Beyond his own community, Herzfeld is making a name for himself in the civic life of greater Portland. When Shaarey Tphiloh was vandalized by people who painted swastikas on the sign outside the building, he got in touch with a wide range of people — obviously the police, but also community organizations, and other religious groups — and held a rally to condemn hate as a way of responding to the incident. He's also willing to stop and chat when he sees people looking quizzically at his yarmulke, or is approached on the street to talk about Israel or Judaism. And he just gave an invocation at the NAACP breakfast for Martin Luther King Day.

"We try to be involved in every issue" where Jewish perspective can deepen people's understanding, he says. He has written and spoken publicly about issues that may seem far afield from traditional Jewish rabbinical studies, such as the problems with solitary confinement in Maine's prison system and security in the post-9/11 world.

"Jewish tradition and Jewish values have a lot to offer for people in Maine," he says, noting that one of the security issues he discussed was a report that an airplane passenger had become alarmed upon seeing a fellow passenger — a devout Jew, as it turned out — preparing for prayer by putting on tefillin, small boxes containing tiny copies of the Torah that are strapped to the arms and head during worship.

As governments and societies struggle with how to accommodate with such important and ancient traditions in the modern world, it's vital to remember that many people live those traditions daily. Into that conversation, Herzfeld injects a reasonable voice, not to mention a listening ear and an open mind. "I think our state has a lot to learn from diverse opinions," he says.

SHENNA BELLOWS | executive director, Maine Civil Liberties Union | Protecting the Constitution and fostering the next generation of activists

PATTI CAPOUCH | executive director, Frannie Peabody Center | Keeping HIV/AIDS top of mind, and those free walk-in Wednesdays

DOUG CLOPP | director of governmental affairs, Consumers for Affordable Health Care | Being the conscience our senators ignore — at their peril

SARAH CUSHMAN | organizer, Portland Green Streets; owner, Cushman Transportation Consulting | Making the streets safer for riders

WILL EVERITT + HILARY FRENKEL | director + field organizer, Maine League of Young Voters | Engaging Maine's next generation

CLIFF GINN | president, Opportunity Maine | Working to improve Mainers' futures

PAUL MCCARRIER | member, Black Bird Legal Collective and Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition | Making sure everyone knows their rights — and gets them

SUZANNE MCCORMICK | executive director, People's Regional Opportunity Program | Fulfilling the promise to put people first

MARKOS MILLER | co-chair, Franklin Street Arterial Committee; board member, Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Association | Reimagining our thoroughfare

CHRISTIAN MILNEIL | blogger, Vigorous North + Rights of Way | Commenting on transport, development, land use, and the environment with unsurpassed energy

MATT POWER | filmmaker, writer, actor, commentator | Presenting progressivism to the masses

CHRIS QUINT | senior director of public affairs, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England | Speaking the important truths of reproductive health and rights

RACHEL TALBOT ROSS | president, Portland chapter, NAACP | Promoting diversity with courage, truth, and memory

ALISON SMITH + ANN LUTHER | co-chairs, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections | Our elections would feel even dirtier without them

ERIC SMITH | associate director, Maine Council of Churches | Preaching faith without dogma

SARAH STANDIFORD + LAURA HARPER | executive director + director of public policy, Maine Women's Lobby | Speaking up for Maine's women and families

BETH STICKNEY | executive director, Immigrant Legal Advocacy Program | Making new Mainers feel at home

MARK SWANN | executive director, Preble Street | Fighting homelessness with real solutions

SUSAN VIOLET | executive director, Wayside Soup Kitchen | Feeding the people who need a hand, and reminding us all to be grateful for what we do have

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