Rabbi Bill Siemers met his colleague, Rabbi Darah Lerner, when he arrived in Bangor nearly eight years ago, but it took him another six months to realize what a high position she held in the community.
Her teenage daughter came home from school and told her that her social studies teacher was disappointed that she didn’t have a guest speaker to talk about Chanukah.
“My daughter put her hand up and waved it,” Siemers said. “The teacher said to her, ‘Young lady, I spoke with the rabbi of Bangor, and she’s not available.
The Queen City 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 Sunday service, where fellow Maine rabbis and clergy and representatives from a number of other institutions and community organizations praised her for her leadership and its ability to bring together representatives of different faiths.
The rabbi was instrumental in bringing together Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants and Evangelicals for events such as the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a 2018 service to recognize that the epidemic of opioids has left the community hurt and praying for healing.
She was praised on Sunday for her composure, dignity, calm, patience, compassion, sense of humor and wisdom. The Reverend Andrew Moeller, pastor of Park Street Unitarian Universalist Church in Bangor, said he experienced those qualities firsthand.
“My mother passed away several years ago and I was going through a difficult time,” he said. “She saw that I was struggling and held out her hand. I hadn’t realized until then how badly I needed to be rebbed.
Lerner, 62, was diagnosed in January 2021 with an aggressive form of ovarian cancer but had announced plans to retire this summer before receiving his diagnosis. She was treated at University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center in Albuquerque to be close to her family in that state, where she will retire. She underwent surgery in February followed by cycles 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 due to the pandemic.
Besides being a day of atonement, Yom Kippur is a time when Jews are meant to be mindful 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 reduce her work this spring due to the residual effects of chemotherapy. On Sunday, Lerner thanked his congregation and the community for their support and prayers during his illness.
“Prayer can help not only in this building but in the community,” she said. “If we know our stories, we have the opportunity to do work that benefits everyone, and the community will be a little better for it too.”
A strong supporter of gay rights and same-sex marriage, she celebrated Maine voters’ endorsement of the latter in July 2013 when she married partner of 27 years, Kelly Quagliotti, in front of 300 guests at Beth El.
“It’s a day dedicated to celebrating equality,” Rabbi Joe Black of Denver said during the wedding ceremony. “It’s a day to celebrate community.”
A member of the Religious Coalition Against Discrimination, Lerner actively campaigned in 2012 as a rabbi for the referendum that allowed same-sex couples to marry. She spoke from a position of faith on how her religious tradition viewed same-sex marriage.
She has also 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 wasn’t afraid to talk about religion and how faith intersects with the news of the day with people she disagrees with politically.
In the early 2000s, she appeared on a radio show called “The God Squad” with Carroll Conley, now head of the Christian Civic League of Maine. Conley led the fight against gay marriage, but he and Lerner remained friends.
Lerner called Conley Sunday a “dear friend” despite their political differences. Conley attended the event.
“Even in our differences, we can stick together and learn from each other,” Lerner said.
Although she may continue to be considered the Rabbi of Bangor, she will take the title of Rabbi Emeritus upon retirement.
Rabbi Sam Weiss, a recent graduate of rabbinical school, will take over as rabbi of Beth El on July 1.