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Adapted from Jews in New Haven, Vol. 8
Edited by Dr. David Fischer

The Hebrew Congregation of Woodmont, located just one block from Long Island Sound, is unique as the only summer synagogue in Connecticut. This historic white structure with stained-glass windows has a story spanning decades and generations.

Beginnings
The earliest Jewish religious services in the Woodmont area or in the town of Milford of which we are aware, were held in the summer of 1920 in the home of Rabbi Yehuda Heschel Levenberg (then regarded as the Chief Rabbi of New Haven) on Soundview Ave. between Hillside and Edgefield Avenues. Over the next few years, there was an active fund to raise money for a synagogue building. By 1926, sufficient funds had been collected and in July of 1926, the synagogue was incorporated. Benjamin Rosenthal of Meriden donated the land on the corner of Edgefield Avenue and the short street that crossed it which was later named Benjamin St. in his honor. Architect Charles A. Abramowitz was enlisted and the project carried out by builder Jacob Schiff. By the summer of 1927, the building was completed and ready for occupancy at 15 Edgefield Avenue. The first officers were Samuel Eskin, president; William Alderman, secretary; and Harris Hoffman, treasurer.

Although there were no dues, contributions were solicited, enabling the synagogue to pay its bills. (In subsequent years, dues were established at $3 per person, and increased until 2000, when the price was established at $20 per person. Today the synagogue does not charge for membership.) The synagogue prospered during the remainder of the 1920s and through the 1930s. Services were held in July, August, and beginning of September. Shabbat services were led by the members and were well attended with 30-50 people on Friday nights and 50-75 on Saturday mornings. Services were also held on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, but getting a minyan was difficult. Weekday minyans were frequent but sporadic and usually held when someone had a yahrzeit or kaddish. In the early years, High Holiday services were held if Rosh Hashanah was in the first half of September, but not if it was later because children had to return to school after Labor Day. Even for those without young children, it was cold in the uninsulated and unheated cottages and synagogue by late September and early October. When High Holiday services were held, often a rabbi or cantor was hired for the occasion, but some years, services were led by the congregants.

The Sabbath School
In 1936, the Sabbath School was founded by William Goodman and directed by Anne Pearl Rhine Max, a schoolteacher from Brooklyn, NY. Every Sunday after morning services, for 13 years, they would assemble the children in the synagogue and teach them at their level of understanding. They taught Bible stories, Hebrew songs, and simple prayers and blessings. At the end of each summer, the children would put on a performance for the community and their proud families. In 1949, with the declining numbers of children attending and with the failing health of Mrs. Max, the Sunday school was discontinued.

The War Years
The synagogue maintained high membership in 1940 and 1941, but had drastically reduced participation in the war years, 1942-1944. During this time, many of the cottages were occupied by defense industry workers from out-of-state, and the trolleys had stopped going to Woodmont and gasoline rationing was making travel difficult. Samuel Eskin, the founding president, died in1942, and the leadership of the shul changed with Morris Romer as president, Jacob Allinson as vice president, and Abraham Price as treasurer. The war in Europe ended in May of 1945, and the nation tried to return to normalcy. The summer of 1945 saw many of the cottages re-occupied by their Jewish owners. That year on Rosh Hashanah, the 100-seat shul had an overflow crowd.

The Social Hall—Community Center
Mr. Rosenthal (the donor of the land for the synagogue in 1926) gave the land at 17 Edgefield Avenue to the HCW in 1945. A social hall was built and completed in 1947. Total cost was $18,010. The summer of 1947 was an exciting one for the congregation—the social hall was used for dances, parties, auctions, and the after-services kiddushim. The women made a Tree of Life and urged people to buy a leaf for a child or grandchild. This money was used to pay mortgage and synagogue expenses. For the next few years, High Holiday services were held in the social hall. In 1950, with the Jewish population declining and fewer attendees, High Holiday services were moved back to the Shul building.

1950s and 1960s
The synagogue continued to hold a minyan for Shabbat services, albeit a smaller group than in the early years. Rabbi Isaac Avigdor, who vacationed in Woodmont, would leyn and give a dvar Torah when he was present. Several weddings and Bar Mitzvahs were celebrated at HCW.

Hard Times
The 1970s saw a wave of crime engulf Milford and especially the Woodmont area. As violent gang wars erupted among teenagers and young adults, people began to feel unsafe and many stopped coming to Woodmont for the summer. The congregation’s expenses continued, but it was difficult to get a minyan. Some members of the board even considered disbanding the congregation and selling the buildings, but no subsequent action was taken.

After near dissolution of the congregation due to diminished membership and difficulty maintaining a minyan of 10 men, things began to improve in the 1980s. The crime wave ceased, and more Jews came to Woodmont. It again became possible to make a minyan, often with a few extra.

Leadership
The congregation was fortunate to have dedicated leadership. The first president, Samuel Eskin, served for 16 years, and is memorialized on a stained-glass window. The second president, Morris Romer, served for 14 years. Shorter terms were served by Joseph M. Samovitz, Samuel Wilion, and Julius Cohen. Aaron Katzman served 21 years as president, and was followed by Dr. Jay Dworkin for 2 years. Dr. David Fischer served for 12 years until 2006. Joel Levitz is the current president. In 2007, Rabbi Schneur Wilhelm became the congregation’s first permanent rabbi.