Synagogue buries prayer books and more burned in weekend fire

Prayer books were stacked neatly into a grave at the Beth Israel Cemetery in New Haven Wednesday afternoon, three days after fire ripped through the Hebrew Congregation of Woodmont.

The religious items were buried out of respect, said the Rabbi Schneur Wilhelm.

The boxes and boxes of books, along with other sacred items, were damaged in an electrical fire Sunday at the historic synagogue on Edefield Avenue in Milford. The fire started shortly after 9 a.m. Sunday, and the rabbi said it was caused by a loose screw in an electric outlet.

The fire caused heavy damage and left the congregants and their rabbi in a somber mood as they buried books, bibles, prayer shawls and other items.

But, firefighters saved the most precious of relics, the synagogue’s two Torahs. That, and the fact that there was no one in the synagogue at the time, has made the tragedy easier to deal with, the rabbi said.

Community support has made the past few days easier, too, Rabbi Wilhelm said Wednesday as he looked sadly at the collection of items being laid to rest in the New Haven cemetery.

While the fire was “devastating,” he said the phone calls and emails from other synagogues and comforting words from residents and neighbors have been numerous. Mayor Ben Blake offered the synagogue the use of the Tri Beach Community Center until the fire-damaged building is rebuilt.

Joel Levitz, board president, said insurance adjusters have been to the site assessing damage. He said the synagogue will be rebuilt, “hopefully within a year.”

“We hope to be able to keep the historic shell,” Levitz said. “The inside will be a modern building.”

According to the congregation’s website, the small white synagogue with stained glass windows was established in 1926. The congregation used to only meet in the summer months but became a year-round synagogue about three years ago. The congregants meet at the synagogue in the summer and while the temperatures remain conducive to gatherings. Then services move to a private home or other location.

The synagogue seated about 135 people, and because of the popularity of Rabbi Wilhelm, who has been with the synagogue five and a half years, High Holy Days have seen attendees spill over into the social hall next door, Levitz said. Attendance at high holy day services numbers around 150 people; special events about 65 people, and regular Sabbath services 35 to 40 people.

As the rabbi and others stood beside the stack of religious items Wednesday, one woman said it was amazing that so much had been inside the small building.

Some kind of marker will probably be placed at the burial site, officials said. But Levitz and the rabbi pointed out that this type of incident doesn’t happen often, so the burial service is new to them and they haven’t worked out the details of a marker yet.

“I’m 67 and I’ve never seen this done before,” Levitz said.

Normally, aged prayer books that can no longer be used are buried with congregants who have died, he said.

The emotional impact was something else new to the members of the Milford synagogue.

“It’s beyond description,” Rabbi Wilhelm said, “because it’s not something you train for.

“It was hard watching the older congregants who had come to the synagogue with their parents and grandparents,” the rabbi said.

He said he was carrying out a damaged window after the fire and a woman was there whose father had been memorialized on the window.

“We will push forward, rebuild and we’re going to come back,” the rabbi said.

People who would like to contribute to a fund that will help the synagogue rebuild can go to the website, Jewishmilford.com. Updates also will be posted there as the congregation works to rebuild.

 

 

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