With a nickname like "Bagel Beach," it's easy to picture Woodmont's typical vacationer. Since the early 1900s, this borough of Milford, Conn., has been the summer escape for hordes of Jewish New Yorkers. And since 1925, they've been joining the locals for services at The Hebrew Congregation of Woodmont.

Or so thought Joel Levitz.

When Levitz, a 62-year-old restaurant owner, and his wife Leslie moved from Fairfield, Conn., it was admittedly more for the beach than the bagels. Still, they imagined their new community to have a full-service shul. What they found instead was a small summer congregation that was growing steadily smaller. Weekly services were only held from July to roughly September, ending with Yom Kippur. Between an aging population and a lack of interest among the younger set, the synagogue's schedule was slowly contracting to the point where a full service took place only five weeks each summer.

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"There was no mechitzah at the time," recalls Levitz, who was bothered by the absence of the traditional separation between men and women, "but it didn't matter. No women came anyway!"

By 1995, as with so many small-town synagogues, the Hebrew Congregation seemed to have run its course. Unlike those other locations, though, its home was a National Historic Landmark in a community rich with Jewish tradition. Levitz was not about to see it fade into the breeze off nearby Long Island Sound.

Milford is the corporate home of such big name companies as the BIC Corporation, the Schick-Wikinson Sword shaving manufacturer and the Subway chain of sandwich shops. But in contrast to the cutthroat negotiating such companies engage in every day, the residential part of town is beloved for its waterfront serenity and laid-back attitude. Still, it took some heavy persuasion – even a little arm-bending – before the synagogue board agreed with Levitz, their president, to employ a full-time rabbi.

Breaking Down Barriers

Levitz turned to Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Schneur Wilhelm, 26, and his wife Chanie to help save the congregation. Though dedicated to a strict interpretation of Jewish law, the Wilhelms – like their counterparts all over the globe – stressed that they wouldn't impose Jewish practices on the congregation as much as they would persuade and teach.

Still, says Chanie Wilhelm, the 24-year-old co-director of today's Chabad Jewish Center of Milford, "when one family insisted on certain guidelines back in 1995, half the congregation walked away and never came back. We really had no idea how we would be received."

The Wilhelms were due to arrive in time for Simchat Torah this year. It would be the first such service in the synagogue's 82-year-old history. Arguably the happiest day of the year, on this particular holiday, the Wilhelms, the Levitzes and a handful of supporters all wondered if they'd be singing to an empty house.

Apparently, there was no need to worry.

"We welcomed 75 men, women and children for that first, festive Simchat Torah," gushes Chanie Wilhelm.

But while the other congregants were getting into the happiness of the day, Joseph Satin, for one, was not quite ready to dance.

Though the Hebrew Congregation was everything he wanted in a synagogue 30 years ago, Satin says his optimism had begun to give way to fear.

"This congregation is going to die in my lifetime," he remembers thinking.

Like Levitz, he made it his life's goal to keep it alive. While the Wilhelms seemed to be a lifeline, Satin admits: "I was concerned. I didn't have any idea what was going to happen."

Just the mention of a mechitzah, for instance, upset him.

"There had been actual, physical clashes over this issue," says Satin.

Many other congregants felt the same, and chief among their concerns was a lack of knowledge about Chabad. While they were by now committed to upholding the historic congregation, they were wary of the change the new guard might effect. For Elaine Wasserman and her husband Jerry, members for 50 years, it was a question of what exactly was going to change. Though raised Orthodox, the Wassermans consider themselves more liberal and approached the new rabbi's appointment with some trepidation.

"That first morning, Joseph [Satin] walked into the synagogue and he seemed ready to face-off," remembers Schneur Wilhelm.

Satin backs up this account: "I came in looking for that mechitzah."

But he didn't notice it. "I felt the atmosphere. I met the rabbi and in five seconds I decided this is fine.

"Plus," he adds with a chuckle, "I suddenly remembered my vow to keep this place going, and I didn't remember any caveat 'as long as there is no mechitzah.'"

Since that first gathering, the Hebrew Congregation has seen a constant upswing in interested congregants.

"We went from pretty much talking about closing shop to talking about winterizing and making this a round-the-year operation," says Wilhelm.

For Elaine Wasserman, the Wilhelms' ability to turn it around was truly amazing.

"How they are able to incorporate all the different backgrounds," she says, "is the most important thing."

And as for the mechitzah, a faux-leaf trellised screen down the middle of the sanctuary, some congregants continue to see it as a sore point.

"It wasn't my first choice," states Satin, "but as Rabbi Wilhelm once said to me, 'This is how I do things.' Not 'we,' – he wasn't forcing his views. He was including us in them."

Satin now enjoys a one-on-one Torah study session with Wilhelm each week. And he laughs at his original fears.

"What typifies [the rabbi] for me is the way he speaks and interacts with people so well. He has his principles, yet he's entirely accepting of those around him," he explains. "And he's just 26 years old!"

Less than six months since the first signs of change, the summer synagogue season at Bagel Beach has already stretched to a full five months of continuous use. This winter, the Wilhelms will host Shabbat services in their home until the synagogue is renovated.

For his part, Levitz sees a bright future made all the more luminescent with next week's public menorah lighting at the local mall.

And Wasserman, who for most of her adult life has worshipped in a slightly different fashion, says that "it's good to be home."