During the Jewish festival of Sukkot, it’s customary to erect a fragile temporary dwelling—a sukkah—for eating daily meals. For the Hebrew Congregation of Woodmont at the Chabad Jewish Center of Milford, which, according to shul (“synagogue”) president Joel Levitz, welcomes people of “all religious backgrounds,” the notion of living in a temporary dwelling has been all too real of late.
On October 14, 2012, a devastating fire ripped through its nearly 90-year-old synagogue. The burned-out structure, originally built in the Colonial Revival style, still stands at 15 Edgefield Avenue in Milford, one block from a picturesque, New England-y stretch of Long Island Sound lovingly called “Bagel Beach” because of its high concentration of Jewish residents.
After the fire, damaged religious artifacts like prayer books and tallitot (prayer shawls) were buried in a ritual ceremony at Beth Israel Cemetery in New Haven. Only two of the synagogue’s beautiful stained glass windows dating back to the 1800s were saved, says Rabbi Schneur Wilhelm (pictured above), who has led Woodmont-Chabad for six of his mere 30 years. The synagogue’s two Torahs, on the other hand, made it through pretty well, with reparable smoke damage. A scribe in New York has since restored the scrolls to a kosher state, allowing them to be used when the congregation’s newly renovated social hall was opened for services last month.
Prompted by the fire to take a serious look at its facilities needs going forward, Woodmont-Chabad decided to overhaul its aging social hall before tackling the much more intensive work required to restore the burned-out synagogue next door. Designed by architect Jay Alpert of Woodbridge and executed by Olympus Construction of Milford, the hall’s sparkling new interior was completed on September 3, just one day before Rosh Hashanah.
Bagel Beachers Joyce Saltman and her husband Sol Hitzig are familiar indeed with the new hall, and not just because they live in a small, bright yellow cottage within eyeshot, about a hundred yards away. The couple contributed half of the funds needed to pay for the hall’s renovation, more than earning the privilege of naming it the Joyce and Sol Happiness Hall.
About six years ago, around the same time as Rabbi Wilhelm, Joyce moved to Milford. One day on a lark, she walked into the complex just a few steps from her home. It felt “like family embraced me,” she says. It was a Saturday, during Shabbat (the Jewish sabbath), and lunch was served after the service. “I felt so welcomed by this most loving community.”
Because Woodmont-Chabad doesn’t charge any dues, it relies on donations and contributions to cover expenses. As Joyce and Sol were about to leave a fundraising meeting last fall after the fire, Sol, who had never belonged to a synagogue in his 83 years of life, found himself seriously fired up. “I would be happy to give half the money to build the new hall, if you’ll give the other half,” he announced.
The new hall is just the beginning, though. The hope is that by next Rosh Hashanah, a new kitchen and sanctuary, and even a Bagel Beach Museum, will be complete—pending another $720,000 in fundraising to reach a total $1.5 million, according to the congregation’s website. The prospect of a kitchen is something the Rabbi’s wife Chanie, a culinary maven who is also Co-Director of the Center, is especially excited about.
Though the journey to full recovery is far from over, for Rabbi Wilhelm, this moment is a blissful one. Officiating at High Holiday services in the new social hall was, he says, “beyond words. It was so wonderful and beautiful. Rebuilding was the best thing we could have done, to be back in our shul. We all felt real joy.”
Now it’s time for the congregation to get ready for its next big celebration—a double-header, in fact. On November 28—due to differences between the Gregorian and Jewish calendars, as well as a host of cultural happenstances, like the fact that Thanksgiving wasn’t an official national holiday until 1863—Chanukah and Thanksgiving will collide for the first time ever. It’s not hard to imagine the youthful Rabbi Wilhelm taking a non-traditional turn carving menorahs into pumpkins for this once-in-an-eon moment in the history of the Festival of Lights: word is that the coincidence won’t happen again for another 78,000 years or so.
Of course, even without Thanksgiving, thanks-giving would be high on the list for the congregants at Woodmont-Chabad, who have walked through fire and begun to emerge out the other side.