It began as a modest endeavor. Harris Gleckman and Steve Hirshon set out in 2004 to improve the records at Mount Sinai Cemetery, one of the few Jewish burial sites in the Portland area.
Then, without design, the project grew into something larger. First it became an Internet database of Jews who have lived in the Portland area since the 1800s. Then it went statewide. Today, the Maine Jewish History Project, accessible at www.mainejews.org, includes information on more than 20,000 Jews with ties to Maine.
There's no end in sight. In the coming years, project organizers hope to make the database bigger and better, collecting oral histories from elderly Maine Jews with the help of a matching grant from the Sam Cohen Foundation.
The online project's growth shows the power of the Internet in collecting genealogical information and writing collective histories. It's a model that could be applied to countless other religious and ethnic communities, in Maine and elsewhere.
"We see that we're developing something that could be used by smaller French towns, Indian towns," said Gleckman, a native of Portland who now lives in New York.
A visit to the project's Web site, which is password-protected because it contains information on living people, reveals a rich historical tapestry.
The database can be searched by a person's name, by the name of a Jewish-related organization, or by the name of one of seven cemeteries around the state where Jews are buried.
Overall, more than 250 Maine cities and towns are represented, with Portland appearing most frequently, followed by Bangor and Lewiston. The Web site contains information on at least 120 different Jewish-related organizations.
Images of 1,400 headstones can also be found. The first known burial of a Jew in Maine occurred in 1860, and the vast majority of deaths recorded in the database occurred in the 20th century.
Judith Halpert, 75, of Portland is among the Maine Jews with longtime ties to the state. Her father, Abraham Venner, was born in Portland in 1901. Her mother's father arrived from Lithuania in 1895.
The online project has stimulated Halpert's interest in the history of Maine's Jewish community.
"It's been very interesting to look at gravestones in the old cemeteries," she said.
The Maine Jewish History Project relies largely on volunteers, and it is hoping to raise $20,000 by the end of 2008, which would trigger a $40,000 grant from the Sam Cohen Foundation.
It is unclear where the project will lead. Gleckman laughed when he was asked if he knew how many Jews have lived in Maine over the years.
But if his database continues to grow, it may not be so long before that question can be answered.
Staff Writer Kevin Wack can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: