Williamsport, Pennsylvania, the home of Little League Baseball, is also the home of the Ohev Shalom Congregation and Rabbi Shaul and Michal Rappeport. Some time back I had the chance to speak Rabbi Rappeport about the city and its Jewish community.
Rabbi Rappeport, how did you come to Williamsport and what was the integration process like for you and your family?
We were seeking to make a contribution to Klal Yisrael by working with a community and providing them with knowledge, guidance and inspiration. At the same time that we were looking, the Jewish community in Williamsport was looking for a spiritual leader. Baruch Hashem we found each other.
The integration process was smooth. The Jewish community is very warm, welcoming and friendly. In addition, the general population in Williamsport also consists of very friendly, lovely people. It is the kind of place where wherever you go – the supermarket, the post office – people always greet each other warmly and smile sincerely. Being surrounded by such nice people, within the shul and beyond, has made integrating pleasant and swift.
How large and how active is the Jewish community there?
It is really hard to answer the first question. We could probably categorize the community into three: shul members, temple members (Reform), and unaffiliated. Beyond this, our community includes many members extending out in an approximate 50-mile radius.
As far as the activity of the community, I can only really speak of the shul. Being a smaller congregation, unfortunately we are not able to maintain daily services, however, there are services each Shabbat.
How have things changed since you’ve arrived?
We have made an effort to increase and enhance all activities. The level of education for children in the Hebrew school has significantly risen. Shiurim are given more often and on a great array of subjects. We try to have more “special events” during the year such as guest speakers, bus trips to Jewish destinations, Jewish concerts or other creative ideas.
How do you and your wife define your role in the community?
Firstly, we see ourselves as each and everyone’s rabbi & rebbitzen, member or not. I make myself available to anyone seeking guidance, inspiration, knowledge or insight from a Jewish perspective. Even in the “information era,” people often seek to learn from a rabbi – rather than the Internet, especially when they have specific questions. Beyond that, I see my role as the bearer of the torch – as it were. I do my best to allow people to see the beauty and wisdom of Yiddishkeit and its relevance to our modern lives.
That being said, technology and creativity have been important ingredients here. When I arrived there was a monthly newsletter, put together by a member couple. With their blessing, I took over and changed it from a monthly to a weekly. I also changed the content completely; it now includes divrei Torah on the Parsha, Haftorah and Holidays, as well as a weekly “Ask the Rabbi” column and a “Who’s Who in Jewish History” which profiles famous rabbonim from the past. This newsletter is e-mailed to most members, and by “snail mail” to those who are not online.
I also give regular shiurim on different topics. For almost all shiurim that I give I prepare a Power Point slide show. I have found that using Power Point enhances people’s experience and increases their understanding, particularly when dealing with a complex concept.
A unique challenge in Williamsport is that, as mentioned above, we cover a large geographical area, with some members living an hour away. Also, amongst those living nearby there are many elderly people who do not go out as often as they used to. To address this, I started broadcasting my shiurim live online, making them accessible to a much wider audience. Online participants can post questions that are then addressed during the class. Web attendance has been outstanding and the feedback has been very positive.
And even a small way to increase Torah learning that I started recently was to add a shiur on Shabbos mornings. Members who come every week were hungry for more – I hope all rabbis have this problem! So now, we have a 30-minute in depth look at a specific issue in the Parsha.