Several years ago, the historic, part-time synagogue in Milford, Conn., was on the verge of closing.
The synagogue for the Hebrew Congregation of Woodmont was built in the 1920s. It operated beginning Memorial Day, all through the summer months and until Labor Day, when Jews from New England and New York visited the area around Long Island Sound, affectionately known as “Bagel Beach.”
It was a resort-area shul, like others along the East Coast shoreline. It boasted a heyday, but started floundering in the 1970s and `80s due to economic and social changes.
Over the decades, the dwindling number of members left its leaders considering the idea of shutting the synagogue’s doors for good.
In a push to save it, synagogue president Joel Levitz helped lead the charge to hire a rabbi. Enter Rabbi Schneur Wilhelm and his wife, Chanie.
By chance, they were already looking to move from New York to Milford to start a Chabad center. In 2007, the Wilhems ended up leading the Milford congregation and working hard to expand its operations.
Their progress was upended last fall, on the morning of Oct. 14, a Sunday.
Building Destroyed, but Torah Scrolls Survive
Wilhelm got a call at about 9:30 a.m. from a fireman asking if he was in the synagogue. He was not. The rabbi was at his home around the corner from the building, which he learned was on fire. The rabbi’s thoughts immediately turned to the two Torahs housed there.
Mrs. Chanie Wilhelm speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony.
By the time he got to the synagogue, the fire had just been put out. He asked the fire chief to try to retrieve the Torahs. The building had been gutted by the electrical fire, but the Torahs survived.
“It was miraculous,” Wilhelm said.
The Torahs, however, did sustain some smoke and water damage. One of them is already repaired, and the other should be back soon, said Wilhelm.
The fire did not damage the synagogue’s neighboring social hall.
But the synagogue and most everything else in it was lost, the rabbi said, except for a couple of Yiddish signs from the 1920s that listed synagogue rules. Wilhelm’s favorite is the one that reads: “No talking about the rabbi.”
‘A New Life’
Undeterred by the damage, the Wilhelms helped launch an ambitious drive to rebuild the synagogue. As part of that, they also want to add a second floor to the social hall, along with a rabbi’s office, and connect the synagogue and the social hall. The two buildings will be joined by a lobby that also will be the home of a Bagel Beach Museum.
Still, they are aiming to keep the synagogue’s appearance as close to the original look as possible, both inside and out. One big change, however: The new complex will operate year-round.
The congregation’s motto on its website is “Restore. Rebuild. Renew.”
Already, the congregation is about halfway to its goal of $1.5 million. Chanie Wilhelm emceed a groundbreaking ceremony at the beginning of summer, displaying the plucky spirit of this congregation and its leaders.
“I don’t know too many who could energize the community the way they did,” Levitz said of the Wilhelms.
As the fundraising continues, Levitz said several six-figure gifts helped boost efforts, but the goal now is to continue to seek contributions of all sizes.
The plan is to rebuild in phases, with the final work being completed in 18 months. First up is the addition to the social hall, which the rabbi said could possibly be finished by the High Holy Days, which begin the first week of September.
Rabbi Schneur Wilhelm, third from left, with family and supporters at the groundbreaking.
The congregation currently gathers in various different buildings in the community. Services will be held in the social hall once its upgrades are made, according to Wilhelm.
The old synagogue and social hall covered about 4,000 square feet. With the connecting lobby and the addition to the back end of the social hall, the new complex will have a total of about 6,000 square feet, the rabbi said.
And its name will blend a bit of the past and present: It will be called the Milford Jewish Center, home to the Historic Hebrew Congregation of Woodmont/Chabad.
The rabbi praised the community’s response after the fire, and he fielded calls from all over offering to help with the cleanup and rebuilding process.
“With our new building, it will be a new life,” said Wilhelm. “Seven years ago, they were talking about closing ... now the Jewish community is very excited about this.”