A miracle unfolded in Atlantic City, New Jersey, a few months ago – and Rabbi Avrohom Rapoport recounted the tale in an exclusive interview with Arutz Sheva.
“We have a nice shul in Ventnor,” Rapoport began. “We’ve rented out a nice little storefront for seven years.”
“In the summer we’re very busy, because it’s a vacation town; in the winter, it’s a smaller community.”
But that community was endangered when the unexpected happened.
“A few months ago something happened that changed everything for us,” Rapoport said. “We were in the middle of davening, it was the coldest day of the year – it was a Friday night – and suddenly water started spraying into our building from an abandoned store next door.”
Water flooded the small shul. The congregation rescued the Torah scrolls, but they faced a bigger problem: the lack of a building for the community to use for prayer and as a center of Jewish life.
“We ended up davening at my home for several months, but it was not a solution,” the Rabbi recounted. “The problem was that summer was coming, we’d have over 100 people every week and there was no place to daven, there was no place to rent, there was nothing for sale – and we were very concerned, because we had a very beautiful community and we had no way to have them all come together.”
A miracle happened, here
The shul looked for a long time, finding nothing – until they found an unusual listing.
“One day we looked on the Internet, a real estate website, and we see that there’s a church that’s for sale – a very large property (…) and we saw that they only wanted a million dollars.”
Rabbi Rapoport explained that the market for churches is down in the US; most premises are being sold merely for the value of the land. But for a small community, one million dollars was a vast sum.
“That was a lot of money, something that we just couldn’t even fathom putting together,” he noted. “But we had no other choice; so we made a deal, we went under contract, we really did not have a plan.”
While the shul managed to get a loan, they were still tasked with raising $200,000 – in a very short time. Somehow, they pulled it all together.
“We worked very hard in a very short amount of time, we were able to raise the money, and now we have a magnificent facility – something that is just a beautiful facility to bring the community together,” he said. “We have a social hall, we have a school building, we have gardens and a yard – and suddenly we found that we have been able to reach so many more people.”
High Holiday services attendance more than doubled, for example, from just 120 people “with a little room for one or two more,” to 250 people.
As they say – משנה מקום משנה מזל (English: Jewish principle that you change your luck when you change your place – ed.) – as as our sages also say […] make a bigger vessel, Hashem will send the bracha,” he reflected. “We’ve seen that, we’re very lucky with our new building and we’re looking forward to being able to do much more for the community this coming year.”
Going back to the roots – and helping others find theirs
Rabbi Rapoport’s dedication to outreach began as a child.
“I moved to the Atlantic City area as a child,” the rabbi explained. “We were sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; my father was one of the first shluchim to New Jersey.”
“I have beautiful memories of specifically our Shabbos table,” he described. “Our shabbos table was always a place where you had 20-30 people from all different backgrounds, all different kinds of Jewish people.”
“You had religious people, non-religious people, you had chassidim with long peyos, other Jews who couldn’t read Hebrew, someone that was coming on business, someone that was coming on vacation – but at the table there was an atmosphere where everyone felt welcome and warm and it was a beautiful thing,” he continued. “Thousands of people would come through my parents’ home over the years, for the meals they offered, and the open home, and the davening, and the services and the classes they offered.”
When R’ Avraham Rapoport became a rabbi, he said, he was offered the opportunity to be a Chabad shaliach all over the world – but he chose to return.
“I wanted to continue and help in the work that my family had been doing for many years,” he said.
No conflict, just kiruv
When asked about whether the Chabad-Lubavitch congregation ever clashed with the shrinking Reform and Conservative communities, Rabbi Rapoport noted that just the opposite is the case.
“We are friendly with the greater community, I have a great relationship with the local rabbis and cantors,” he said. “What we try to do is enhance the community.”
“Our goal is to encourage Jewish people, regardless of their background or their level of knowledge, to be more Jewish, to do more mitzvot,” he emphasized.
“They may go to another shul, but if they put on tefilin every day because they came to a class, or they start lighting Shabbat candles, or maybe they make their house kosher […] this is a beautiful thing.”
The shul has not faced opposition from the non-Jewish world, either.
“There is anti-Semitism everywhere in the world – individuals who shout things and say things – no matter where you go,” he said. “It’s happened here several times, but in general we haven’t experienced this.”
“On the contrary, we find that the community is supportive of our shul.”
Rapoport did note that the shul takes precautions before the High Holidays, posting a police officer outside the premises, “because we live in a crazy world, during difficult times” – but that nothing has happened “in worrisome amounts.”
Looking toward the future
A great deal of the children in the Ventnor shul’s programs are not observant – but they choose the small community for its warmth and its principles.
“The children we have here are from many different backgrounds, but generally they are not from religious families, from observant families,” he acknowledged.
“We feel that the atmosphere we create is one in which they feel welcome, and they’re happy that their children are having fun – not just learning, but they love to learn.”
“I think one of the most important things about teaching children is not only the learning, but also the atmosphere,” he concluded.
“If a child enjoys learning Torah, and doing mitzvot, they’ll come back.”