Rabbi Bill Siemers met his colleague, Rabbi Darah Lerner, when he arrived in Bangor nearly eight years ago, but it took another six months before he understood what an exalted position she held in the community.
His teenage daughter came home from school and told him that her social studies teacher was disappointed that she did not have a guest speaker to talk about Hanukkah.
“My daughter raised her hand and waved it around,” Siemers said. “The teacher told her: ‘Young lady, I have spoken with the rabbi of Bangor, and she is unavailable.’”
The Queen City’s rabbi is retiring next month after leading Bangor’s Reform synagogue, Beth El, for 17 years. The French Street synagogue held a tearful celebration of her service Sunday, where her fellow Maine rabbis and clergy and representatives from a number of other community institutions and organizations lauded her for her leadership and ability to bring representatives from different faiths together.
The rabbi was instrumental in bringing together Jews, Muslims, Catholics, mainline Protestants and evangelicals for events such as the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a 2018 service to acknowledge that the opioid epidemic has left the community wounded and to pray for healing.
She was praised Sunday for her poise, dignity, calmness, patience, compassion, sense of humor and wisdom. The Rev. Andrew Moeller, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church on Park Street in Bangor, said that he experienced those qualities firsthand.
“My mom died several years ago, and I was having a difficult time,” he said. “She saw I was struggling and reached out to me. I hadn’t realized until then how much I needed to be rabbi-ed.”
Lerner, 62, was diagnosed in January 2021 with an aggressive form of ovarian cancer but had announced her intent to retire this summer prior to receiving her diagnosis. She sought treatment at the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center in Albuquerque to be near family in that state, which is where she will retire. She had surgery in February followed by rounds of chemotherapy.
She returned in September in time for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, but took part in services remotely because of the pandemic.
In addition to being a day for atonement, Yom Kippur is a time when Jews are supposed to be aware of their own mortality, she said.
“One thing I learned from my diagnosis and treatment is that every day is Yom Kippur,” Lerner said.
She was forced to cut back on her work this spring due to the residual effects of chemotherapy. On Sunday, Lerner thanked her congregation and the community for their support and prayers during her illness.
“Prayer can help not just in this building but in the community,” she said. “If we know our stories, we have the possibility to do work that benefits everyone, and the community will be a little better, too.”
An outspoken supporter of gay rights and same-sex marriage, she celebrated Maine voters’ approval of the latter in July 2013 when she married her partner of 27 years, Kelly Quagliotti, before 300 guests at Beth El.
“This is a day about celebrating equality,” Rabbi Joe Black of Denver said at the wedding ceremony. “This is a day about celebrating community.”
A member of the Religious Coalition Against Discrimination, Lerner in 2012 actively campaigned as a rabbi for the referendum that allowed same-sex couples to marry. She spoke from a position of faith about how her religious tradition viewed gay marriage.
She also has been involved in many interfaith programs in northern Maine over the years and has been willing to answer questions about Judaism and its practices. Lerner also was not afraid to talk about religion and how faith intersects with the news of the day with people she disagreed with politically.
In the early 2000s, she appeared on a radio talk show program called “The God Squad” with Carroll Conley, now head of the Christian Civic League of Maine. Conley led the fight against same-sex marriage, but he and Lerner remained friends.
Lerner referred to Conley on Sunday as a “dear friend” despite their political differences. Conley attended the event.
“Even in our differences, we can stand together and learn from each other,” Lerner said.
While she may continue to be thought of as the rabbi of Bangor, she will take on the title of rabbi emerita in retirement.
Rabbi Sam Weiss, a recent rabbinical school graduate, will take over as Beth El’s rabbi on July 1.