By Cindy Mindell ~
MILFORD – Jews have been coming to the beaches of Long Island Sound in Milford since the early 1900s, escaping the summer heat of cities like New York, New Haven, and Springfield, Mass. for the tiny borough of Woodmont.
And where there is a minyan, there is bound to be a religious service. According to local historian Dr. David Fischer, editor of “Jews in New Haven” (Jewish Historical Society of Greater New Haven, 2005), it was Rabbi Yehuda Heschel Levenberg who held the first such service, at his home on Soundview Avenue in summer 1920.
By 1926, a building campaign had raised enough money to build a synagogue on land donated by Benjamin Rosenthal of Meriden, and the Hebrew Congregation of Woodmont was incorporated that July.
The following summer, the one-room, uninsulated wooden building designed by architect Charles A. Abramowitz opened its doors on Edgefield Avenue, a block away from what would come to be known as “Bagel Beach.”
A Sunday school opened in 1936, and a social hall was built in 1945 on an adjacent parcel of land, also donated by Benjamin Rosenthal. The Jewish summer community thrived until World War II, Fischer writes, when the population began to age and younger Jews become less engaged. A wave of gang violence during the ‘70s deterred summer folk, and the synagogue nearly closed for good. By the time the building was placed on the National Historic Register in 1995, the congregation was barely able to convene a minyan.
When Joel and Leslie Levitz moved to Milford from Fairfield in 2004, they found a synagogue that only held Shabbat services from Memorial Day through Labor Day, led by congregants; a rabbi would be hired for High Holiday services if they fell early enough on the calendar. The couple joined the congregation and Joel became president. He convinced the board that the synagogue could only survive with a full-time rabbi and year-round services, and he contacted Chabad Lubavitch in Brooklyn.
Rabbi Schneur and Chanie Wilhelm were dispatched by the movement to Milford in May 2007. Chanie grew up in Orange, the daughter of Rabbi Sheya Hecht, regional director of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in greater New Haven. Hecht had been thinking about bringing a Chabad presence to Milford. “So it worked out that this synagogue called at just the right time,” says Rabbi Wilhelm.
The Wilhelms arrived in time to hold the first-ever Simchat Torah celebration at the synagogue. They incorporated Shavuot services into the synagogue’s programming and held weekly services in the synagogue until the weather got too cold to meet in the uninsulated building.
“It was somewhat of a struggle that first summer,” says Rabbi Wilhelm. “We had to make calls every week to ensure that we would have a minyan each Shabbat. That winter, my wife and I decided to have services in our home, and so once a month our dining room became a makeshift synagogue for Saturday morning services.”
Services steadily increased during the winter from monthly to every other week. In fall 2010, the synagogue became a year-round operation, with weekly Shabbat services, adult-education classes, and holiday-related programming held in a rented space during the winter. The synagogue has expanded its offerings to include twice-monthly Friday-night services, a Jewish women’s circle, and a men’s tefillin club.
In 2009, an anonymous donor paid to have one of the synagogue’s three Torah scrolls repaired, and the resulting rededication ceremony included a parade with music and dancing through the streets near the synagogue.
Last winter, a congregant and Milford summer resident offered her home to the congregation while she and her husband were in Florida.
“Thank God, we now have services every Saturday morning, and we don’t worry about getting a minyan,” says Wilhelm. “We have men and women who come regularly and enjoy the very warm and uplifting atmosphere, as well as the feeling of community and friendship among our attendees.”
While there is no official member count – and no formal dues structure – Wilhelm says that he has seen tremendous growth in participation over the last five years. An average Shabbat service will draw around 30 people, he says, with more participation during the summer.
Next month, Hebrew Congregation of Woodmont will kick off a building campaign. The resulting (winterized) Jewish Center will include a new central entrance and lobby connecting the shul and the adjacent social hall. The updated building, which will retain its original style and structure, will include a new library-classroom and rabbi’s office.
The lobby will be home to the newly created Bagel Beach Museum, an idea the Wilhelms came up with as a way to document and preserve Jewish history in Woodmont and other nearby summer beach communities. Together with several members, including local Jewish historian Dr. David S. Fischer, Chanie Wilhelm have formed the Bagel Beach Historical Society, “The goal is to collect as much information as possible about Bagel Beach, also known as Jewish Woodmont, including landmarks, points of interest, historical documents, notables, Jewish events that took place, and most importantly, the memories and pictures of the people who called Woodmont home,” says Rabbi Wilhelm.
Chanie has worked with Marvin Bargar, archivist of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater New Haven, and collected photos and historical documents, among them posters in Yiddish and English advertising a dedication ceremony for a new Torah scroll donated to the synagogue in 1933. Her interviews with dozens of people with ties to Bagel Beach, some in their 90s, are posted on a new website, www.BagelBeach.com.
To learn more about the Hebrew Congregation of Woodmont: www.jewishmilford.com