Hanukah is time of hope for local synagogue, despite recent fire

It wasn’t an easy year for the Hebrew Congregation of Woodmont: Fire ripped apart the synagogue on Edgefield Avenue in October, leaving the members displaced.

But Hanukah is about hope, the Rabbi Schneur Wilhelm told members during a menorah lighting ceremony Sunday at the Westfield Mall.

Congregants gathered at the mall to light the candles on a menorah made of canned goods that members had donated.

While the canned-goods menorah was only a temporary structure, destined to be delivered to area food banks, its meaning was significant.

Rabbi Wilhelm said that after the fire, there was tremendous community support, and so he felt it was important to reciprocate and give back, especially in the month following Hurricane Sandy.

“We tried to think of something that would help others,” he said. “All of these were donated by members.”

The synagogue had taken up temporary residence at a nearby recreation center, courtesy of the city, but the congregation has since moved to a member’s house at 163 Hillside Avenue for the time being. Reconstruction efforts are moving along at the synagogue, Rabbi Wilhelm said, noting that discussions have taken place with an architect and contractor, and renovation plans are being created.

Expecting to need $1 million to rebuild the synagogue, he said a kick-off fund-raiser will likely take place at the end of January or beginning of February. Plans will be available for people to view at the event.

When it is complete, the synagogue will be more up-to-date and weatherized so that services can take place during the cold months. Previously, the congregation moved to other quarters when the cold weather set in.

“It will be year-round, and it will be more of a Jewish community center,” the rabbi said, expressing the hope that is characteristic of the season.

Mayor Ben Blake, who did the honor of lighting the candles on the menorah Sunday, supported the rabbi’s message.

He said that while the season is a time of presents and candle lighting, the big message is hope and perseverance. These themes were evident in the way the community came together to support the congregation after the fire, he said.

The ceremony represented hope and good will in other ways too. Synagogue member Ortel Gefen said she was glad to find the canned-goods menorah, and a traditional menorah, in the mall across from the Christmas display that includes Santa Claus.

“I walked in and saw Santa, and I wondered where this would be located,” she said. “I was happy to see them so close together. It shows everyone walking by how we can enjoy both holidays and have a wonderful time.”

Rabbi Wilhelm noted that part of the message of Hanukah concerns moves to destroy the Jewish faith. He said the nearly side-by-side symbols of the two religions represents the religious freedom enjoyed in the United States.

“Thank God we’re living in a country where we’re free to express our religious beliefs,” he said.

The menorah and the Christmas decorations have been part of the mall’s holiday display for a number of years, said General Manager Dan Kiley. The lower level of the mall, outside Macy’s, is a central location that allows many people to see the holiday displays, Kiley said.

The city already held its annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony downtown. A menorah lighting is planned for Saturday, Dec. 15, at 6:30 p.m. at the menorah in the center of the green.

For updates on the Hebrew Congregation of Woodmont’s restoration project, visit Jewishmilford.com.

The October blaze was caused by a loose screw in an electric outlet. The fire destroyed many books and sacred items, but firefighters saved the most precious of relics, the synagogue’s two Torahs.