MILFORD — As soon as the voice on the phone asked Rabbi Schneur Wilhelm if he was in his synagogue Sunday morning, he knew there was trouble.
It was the fire department. Wilhelm put down the phone and ran around the corner to the historic Hebrew Congregation of Woodmont to see flames and smoke billowing from the windows.
As a suspected electrical fire gutted the Edgefield Avenue structure, firefighters asked if anything in the building needed to be removed. The torahs, said Wilhelm and other congregants who rushed to the scene.
Firefighters Michael Dunn and Matt Ramos, along with Fire Lt. Steve Romano, ran into the temple once the bulk of the fire was knocked down and carried out the synagogue’s two torahs, according to the fire department.
Elaine Wasserman, who has been a congregant since she was a child, was touched by the firefighters’ action.
“I asked one of them if he was Jewish. He said no, but that his wife’s roommate was. He knew they were important,” Wasserman said, calling the synagogue her second home. She was among a number of congregants who ran to the synagogue as soon as they heard.
Wilhelm said the torahs were dripping wet when they emerged, but credited their survival to an act of God.
“They looked damaged, but the extent to which, we don’t know,” said Wilhelm, who was thankful no one was hurt.
The fire remains under investigation, but the rabbi said it appears to have been an electrical fire and not arson. The building, which until six years ago was used exclusively during the summer, uses space heaters in colder months, according to Chanie Wilhelm, the rabbi’s wife. She said the heaters were turned off after sundown Saturday.
The fire was called in by a police officer who saw smoke as he was working a road race that went past the synagogue about 9:20 a.m. Sunday.
The 86-year-old structure was gutted, according to Joel Levitz, president of the congregation. “Everything is gone. The prayer books, the stands, lecterns. There is nothing left. It is just a shell,” he said. All but two of the structure’s stained glass windows appeared to be destroyed as well.
Levitz said in addition to checking on the condition of the torahs with a scribe in New York, the congregation will have to bury damaged prayer books and prayer shawls.
“There is a lot to do,” said Levitz, who vowed the congregation will not only rebuild, but will find a place to hold services by next Saturday. He said state Sen. Gayle Slossberg came to the scene and promised to help them find an alternative place to pray.
“It could be in someone’s home. In a nearby condo association social room. We will find a place,” Levitz said.
The synagogue was built in 1926 and has an open membership. Most Saturdays, 20 to 30 people attend. On the High Holy Days, the number can swell to 150, requiring the congregation to use an adjoining social hall instead, said Wilhelm, who became the congregation’s first full-time rabbi 6½ years ago.
Source: The CT Post