Congregation Etz Chaim, Hebrew for "Tree of Life," flourished for decades through the 1950's, when it served more than 125 families in Biddeford and Saco alone. By the 1970's, however, membership had dwindled to about 25 families, and the synagogue no longer had a rabbi or offered Hebrew school.
Today the congregation is branching out, and its roots are growing stronger as different generations work together to revitalize the largest of York County's two synagogues. The latest evidence of this renaissance is the synagogue's recent renovation. The congregation made a variety of structural and cosmetic improvements, including new stairs and a ramp out front, an elevator inside, new pi e paneling throughout the foyer and new carpeting and drapes in the social hall. The work was financed by the late Alfred Osher and his wife, Susan, who lives in Saco. The renovations show how the congregation is working together to meet the varied needs of its members, whether they are senior citizens who have a difficult time negotiating stairs, or youngsters who need a comfortable place to study Hebrew.
Congregation Etz Chaim was founded in 1906 in a former Episcopal church on Bacon Street. Things started looking up at Etz Chaim about 20 years ago, when lifelong member Arnold Shapiro of Biddeford became president of the synagogue. He nudged the Orthodox congregation toward the less-strict Conservative movement. At the time services were long and few young people attended. Children were going to Hebrew school in Portland. With the formation of the York County Jewish Community Council a decade ago, Etz Chaim began offering Hebrew school and reaching out to more than 260 Jewish families in the area. Now the congregation counts 75 families among its membership.
Still withut a rabbi members of the congregation lead monthly family services throughout the winter. They also hold monthlly potluck suppers. Each autumn a rabbi from another congregation comes to celebrate the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Casco Bay Tummlers, a traditional klezmer band, pack the family Hanukkah party held at the synagogue each December.