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Milford rabbi vows to rebuild after devastating fire

By Cindy Mindell

Rabbi Schneur Wilhelm (right) and Joel Levitz, president of the Woodmont shul carry the saved Torahs

MILFORD – The historic synagogue building may be gutted by fire, but Rabbi Schneur Wilhelm says that the Hebrew Congregation of Woodmont “is coming together and will come out stronger.”
The Sunday-morning blaze destroyed everything inside the 86-year-old structure located on the corner of Merwin Avenue and Benjamin Street, except the two Torah scrolls.  A preliminary finding by the Fire Department concluded the fire was electrical in nature, and was not suspicious.
Wilhelm was at home, next door to the synagogue, when he received a call from the Milford fire department. He ran to the shul and introduced himself to the fire chief, then asked him to rescue the Torah scrolls.
“It was miraculous: the walls and the stained glass windows next to the Aron Hakodesh [the Holy Ark] were destroyed,” Wilhelm says, “but it’s as if there was a fireproof wall stopping the fire from getting to the Torahs.”
The wet scrolls were wrapped in a tarp and carried outside. Wilhelm called Brooklyn-based scribe Zalman Shapiro, who had repaired one of the scrolls in 2009, and was told to unroll the scrolls to prevent the letters from sticking and peeling off. Some of the parchment is blackened from smoke damage; Wilhelm says that he will consult with Shapiro on how best to treat the scrolls.

The interior of the Woodmont shul after it ws destroyed by fire.

This week, Wilhelm will meet with Milford mayor Benjamin G. Blake, who has offered to help find a temporary home for the congregation, which had just kicked off a building campaign in the summer. Plans have been underway for a winterized and expanded facility that would house the synagogue and new classroom, library, and office space, along with a museum of local Jewish history. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995 and is owned by Chabad of Milford.
Wilhelm is staying upbeat, buoyed by the many supportive calls and emails he has received since the fire.
“One of the Torah scrolls was rolled to BeReishis, taking us back to the beginning, in a sense,” he says. “We’re homeless but we will come back stronger, bigger, and better. We will rebuild, and we will try and bring back the old charm and wonderful memories of this congregation as best as we can.”
To learn more about Hebrew Congregation of Woodmont see the Jewish Ledger cover story, “Bagel Beach and CT’s Summer Synagogue,” June 15, 2012 at www.jewishledger.com. To find out more about the congregation’s rebuilding efforts visit www.jewishmilford.com..

Comments? Email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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