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It’s been a year and a half since Rabbi Bill Tepper began serving as rabbi for Temple Shalom Congregation. Like his immediate predecessor, Rabbi Karen Soria, Rabbi Tepper is a “fly-in rabbi”, coming to Winnipeg once a month, when he spends a four-day weekend here.

The rest of the time, Rabbi Tepper lives in Toronto, where he serves in a variety of positions, including as a teacher at Holy Blossom Temple, as well as at Anshe Shalom Synagogue in Hamilton.
Now that he’s had a chance to familiarize himself both with the Temple Shalom Congregation and the city of Winnipeg, we thought it a good idea to sit down with Rabbi Tepper for an in-depth interview – to discuss his career prior to becoming a rabbi, how he came to be a rabbi, and what his impressions are of the time he has spent so far serving as Temple Shalom’s rabbi.
For those of you who haven’t met Rabbi Tepper, he’s quite ingratiating and a marvelous conversationalist. If you weren’t already aware though that Rabbi Tepper is hearing impaired – something, he explains, that is a genetic trait in his family, other than the hearing aid he wears and the slight effect he displays in speaking, you probably wouldn’t even think that there’s much different in his manner of speech. He does ask that you speak to him directly though, and every so often he’ll ask you to repeat something.
But, with his melodious voice and warm smile, Rabbi Tepper immediately sets you at ease – something he no doubt perfected in his many years as a teacher, which is what he did, quite successfully, before embarking on a wholesale career switch when he was already in his 40s.
Married, with one son, Rabbi Tepper noted during our conversation that even though Toronto is his home base, in the time that he has been serving as a rabbi, he has developed a strong affection for smaller cities, including Cincinnati – where he studied for the rabbinate at the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute for Religion (HUC-JIR) for four years, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he served as rabbi for eight years. To that end, Winnipeg has become a natural fit, he now observes.

Following are some excerpts from my interview with Rabbi Tepper, which took place on January 19, during his most recent visit to Winnipeg, the weekend of January 18-21:
I told Rabbi Tepper that I had waited a year and a half to interview him because “I wanted him to have a chance to get his feet wet” before asking him what his impressions were both of Winnipeg and Temple Shalom.
I asked him whether there was anything he’d like to say about his new congregation here.
“The congregation is wonderful,” Rabbi Tepper began. “Temple Shalom is a very special place. I have been made to feel welcome and part of the congregational community from the first day that I arrived. People are engaging here, people are responsive here, people like to communicate with me, and everyone is being very, kind.
“I also believe that (the Temple Shalom) community is a caring community and, by caring community I mean we look out for one another. We always have to stay on our toes regarding who has a special need, who is hospitalized, who is sick, who is going through a difficult time – health wise or economically.
“I feel very blessed to be here and I’m very thankful to a colleague in Toronto who served as a ‘shadchan’ (matchmaker) and helped to make it happen for me here.
“The larger community – I am still continuing to get to know. I’ve spent time at the Rady Centre, I’ve gotten to know some of the staff at the Federation and I’ve gotten to know the director of the Federation – and of the Rady Centre. I’ve been able to spend some time at the Gray Academy and spend some time with the students, staff and the Head of School there. On my next trip in February I’ll be making another visit there.
“I have visited the Gwen Secter Centre and that was a very good experience. I haven’t been to Simkin (Centre) yet, but I plan to go as soon as I can.

I asked Rabbi Tepper whether he’s had the opportunity to meet any of the other rabbis in Winnipeg. He said that he’s had a chance to meet Rabbi Green, although he hasn’t really had much of an opportunity to spend much time with him, saying though “I know I better hurry because he’s departing Winnipeg soon..”
Rabbi Tepper also noted that he did share a table with Rabbi Maas at a Shavuot dinner last spring, but he hasn’t met Rabbi Leibl yet. Rabbi Tepper also mentioned that he met Rabbi Lander (the former rabbi at Etz Chayim, who has now moved back to Toronto) before he left Winnipeg.

It is “a challenge being here only once a month,” Rabbi Tepper acknowledged, “although I try to make the most of it when I’m here.”
“I very much enjoy coming to Winnipeg,” Rabbi Tepper explained, “because when I lived in the United States I lived in smaller cities” (as mentioned in the introduction to this story). “I got spoiled living in smaller communities…more people knew each other. Also, it goes without saying that it’s more economically satisfying living in a smaller city; it’s easier to drive. “

“You were a teacher in Toronto before you decided to become a rabbi,” I noted. “How many years did you do that?”
“I did it for 15 years,” Rabbi Tepper answered. “I taught English and drama, five years at a high school in Mississauga and ten years at another in Brampton.”

“So, what led you to enter the rabbinate?” I wondered.
“I did not grow up Reform”, Rabbi Tepper explained. “I’m a convert to Reform. I grew up in a more traditional home. I also grew up in a three-generation home – my mom, my grandparents, and my sister and me. My grandparents were very devoted members of their Orthodox synagogue – one block away from where we lived, and that was the milieu in which I was raised.
“When I was in my twenties – in my late twenties, I ‘wandered in the desert’. I very much respected and felt affection for that with which I was raised - traditional Judaism, but I was not sure I wanted it for my life  as an adult and  when it came time for me to start my own family.
“When I met my wife Deborah, who also came from a more traditional background, we knew what we wanted and what we didn’t want. Together we talked about it and thought about it – how we were going to raise our son and so forth and, to cut to the chase, we found a home in Reform…the style of worship, the manner of Jewish living, and the community we became part of at Holy Blossom  Temple – this is where we wanted to be.
“So, I was teaching and Max, our son, came along, and we decided we were going to join Holy Blossom and he was going to start in religious school there and, the next thing I knew, my rabbis at Holy Blossom were asking me to volunteer for things. They knew about my drama background, so I was invited  to direct  theatrical productions there. I got asked to supply teach and to work at the Reform Jewish camp (Camp George, north of Toronto). I went to a couple of retreats and some kind of transformation was happening. My teaching career was very satisfying, my wife worked, our son was in school, and we were at Holy Blossom…seven days a week it seemed...yet…I took a chance and I wrote to Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion -  the Cincinnati campus, asking ‘Could you send me some information?’ and less than a week later I received this beautiful and informative colour pamphlet and a letter from the director of admissions.
“I looked at these and it was all very exciting. But, I thought: ‘This is ridiculous. I’ve got a home and a family. I can’t do this.’ I didn’t throw them out; I put them into the back of the drawer of my desk. I didn’t look at it again for almost a year and then another year went by – even more involvement. I was talking to rabbis and sort of absorbing through a sort of osmosis and one night, my family and I were sitting around our dining room table in our house and I said: ‘Stay here for a second, I have to go upstairs and get something.’
“I went upstairs, opened up the drawer, reached in the back, pulled the letter and the pamphlet out, and came downstairs. I put it on the table.”

“But, you hadn’t mentioned this to your wife until then?” I wondered.
“I hadn’t given my wife a clue,” Rabbi Tepper answered. “I had kept it very close to my chest. She knew that we were very involved in the Temple, that I was getting a lot of satisfaction from everything, but she didn’t know that I was changing in the way that I was.
“So, I put the pamphlet on the table and I said, ‘This is what I want us to do – and I want us to do it together. I’m not going to go to Israel by myself for a year, I’m not moving to Cincinnati by myself. And right then and there – this is one of those ‘Ripley Believe it or Not’ scenarios – my wife and son said ‘yes’.”
(Rabbi Tepper explained that his wife Deborah had been working as an accounting manager – also in a congregation – Temple Sinai in Toronto.)

“So this was quite a commitment,” I observed. “When exactly did this conversation take place?”
“It was in 2001,” Rabbi Tepper said. “I decided that I would give myself two more years of teaching, also two years of studying Hebrew (at the same time) - and to undertake the  application process” (for Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion).

To be continued.

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