When we wrote the story of our congregation on Identity Day for Synagogue 2000, most everybody contributed their perception that our congregation is a warm and welcoming place. Certainly, I sensed that warmth all those years ago when I first came to seek the position of rabbi, and the feelings have not abated. We have developed an ease with each other and a delightful informality.
Imagine how formidable it seems to an outsider to be plunked into the middle of a group such as ours. It reminds me of my first spring in Hebrew School when I was all of six years old. My parents had diligently taught me mah nishtanah for earlier Passovers in the sing-song chant they knew as kids. As a result, I was promoted to a class of second-graders. I was terrified to be with such big kids, none of whom I knew. And then the teacher began to sing the four questions to the melody with which we have more recently become familiar the one which repeats ha-laila hazeh over and over. I wasn’t singing because I didn’t know it. I felt like every pair of eyes was on me, and the teacher’s relatively innocent I thought you knew this sent me into uncontrollable sobbing. I refused to go back to that second-grade class.
Fortunately, I worked out my feelings in time to enter second grade of Hebrew School with my class, but the unpleasantness of being the outsider among kids (who later became my friends) is a clear memory.
When a visitor comes to the synagogue, we can never know exactly what he or she brings in his or her heart. For some, there is most certainly an automatic feeling of belonging. For most, there is almost certainly a feeling of trepidation. The melodies may be different, the Hebrew more pervasive, the faces unfamiliar. Some may be non-Jews and some may be Jews making their first tentative contact with their own heritage. For this latter group, the first encounters are critical and may shape a longer-term attitude not just toward our synagogue, but toward Judaism and Jewish community.
Each of you is an ambassador of Jewish life to whoever comes through our portals. Strive to greet each unfamiliar visitor with seiver panim yafot, a pleasant demeanor and openness. Please be especially sensitive to the fact that our customs look unfamiliar and threatening to newcomers who are strangers to kipa, tallit and siddur. The well-intentioned I thought you knew this (or the more belligerent have some respect for us ) may be taken more personally and deeply than it is offered.
Mostly, we do a wonderful job of welcoming people to our house of God. It is what earns us the title The Lord’s Hosts.