Comfort Community: Welcoming the Stranger in Both Action and Word

by Rabbi Benjamin J. Zeidman

The last time you were in another synagogue, how did you feel? What was it like? Did you know anyone else there? Did anyone say hello? Did you feel that it was a place you belonged, a home away from home?

In working with conversion students, I often surprise them when I explain that one need not be a member to attend Shabbat services. All they have to do is walk in. No one will turn them away, and in fact it is likely that they will be greeted with warmth. The anxieties of those who might wish to join in Jewish worship are telling. How much they reveal about our own anxieties!

If you are reading this in our monthly bulletin, you likely have the joy of being able to say that you are one of the pillars of our community; you support Temple Emanu-El as a member. But do we realize the fears of those who might wish to join us in the synagogue, Jewish or not? Do we realize that the couple we do not recognize or the individual standing to the side on Friday evening in the lobby during the Shabbat blessings wants to be welcomed but is too overwhelmed to initiate conversation? Do we approach unfamiliar people with a sense that a new friend, even a potential new “pillar,” is there in front of us but too nervous to see how lovely a place and how warm Emanu-El really is? How easy the potential for a missed opportunity…

After attending his or her first, second and even third Shabbat service, one thinking about choosing Judaism often remarks: “I was completely out of place. I had no clue what was happening in the service. I didn’t know what was going to happen next.” With assurance I can tell them: Don’t worry! It is the same for many of us! Each synagogue does things a little differently. Each Shabbat service at the same synagogue might include some slight alteration. And how many of the people sitting in the service truly have a sense of the liturgy? With some study, all of us can learn more about Jewish prayer, but rabbis and Jewish scholars rarely fill the synagogue pews.

The connection between those interested in Judaism, and those who are Jewish but are not yet in the habit of attending the Temple, is clear. When someone chooses to join us in prayer, for a program, to volunteer and for any other occasion, we would do well to consider what the “stranger,” the “newcomer,” must be feeling.

Lest we think that someone we do not recognize will just keep coming back again until they get to know the place on their own (in which case, after their first visit, we’ll likely never see them again), we are reminded by the midrash of the importance of someone who chooses to engage in Jewish life:

Dearer to God is the stranger who has come of their own accord than all the crowds of Israelites who stood before Mount Sinai. For had the Israelites not witnessed the thunder, lighting, quaking mountains and sounding trumpets, they may not have accepted the Torah. But the stranger, who saw not one of those things, came and offered themselves to the Holy One, and took the yoke of Heaven upon themselves Can anyone be dearer to God than this person? (Tanhuma Buber, Lech L’cha, 6)

As opposed to the Middle Ages, there no longer exist communal repercussions for those who choose not to engage in Jewish life. So, a stranger may be someone who converts to Judaism or someone who simply chooses to come to synagogue to actively practice the Judaism into which he or she is born. Either way, we would do well to remember that the person who actively makes a choice to engage with the Jewish community is special and should feel welcomed in a community full of others who have made the same choice.

To welcome the “stranger,” someone you do not recognize, is to do more than simply make him or her feel comfortable and to help him or her know how lovely our community really is. It is to engage with the Divine. It is to make our community and our lives as Jews holy. As Abraham welcomed the strangers that turned out to be angels, we never know who we might be welcoming. May we each be a part of helping everyone to know how special our community truly is.

Rabbi Benjamin J. Zeidman is the assistant rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York.