Sukkot Reminds Us to Treat All Visitors as Honored Guests

This blog post was reprinted with permission from j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California

Welcome at the doorI recently visited a San Francisco synagogue for the first time. I rang the bell and a teenage girl came to let me in.  She wasn’t working there; she was just doing her homework. She welcomed me with a warm smile and asked if she could help me. We chatted about her schoolwork and life at the synagogue, and then the rabbi came running out to meet me. He was in the middle of Bar Mitzvah lessons and apologized for his delay in welcoming me. He didn’t know I was a rabbi or what I was doing there; it appeared that this is how he welcomed anyone walking in the door. I explained that I was fine—just a bit early for a meeting. The night went on in this fashion. I have to admit that I was a bit flabbergasted. I had to wonder, why shouldn’t every encounter be this way?

What came to my mind that night is that this synagogue clearly practices and teaches what some have recently been calling audacious or radical hospitality. They went out of their way to make sure I was treated like an honored guest. This spirit of embrace is ingrained in their culture to the extent that even a teenager is among the initiated! We all know people who seem to go far above and beyond what might be considered polite or inclusive. And we know how encountering such an individual has the power to change our outlook. Those of us who work for Jewish organizations struggle to figure out how our institutions can reflect this value. We may have the best programs, the most beautiful services, the best school. But at the end of the day, what supersedes everything else is whether or not people feel in each and every personal encounter that they matter.

Sukkot is the Jewish season for nurturing this quality of openness in ourselves and our institutions. We move out of our homes into huts, and we invite people to join us in these temporary, yet holy spaces. The holiday goes by many names: the Feast of Booths, the Festival of Ingathering, and He-Chag (the holiday). But if we stress the injunction to welcome those in need into our sukkahs, we could also name it the Festival of Hospitality.

In a few weeks, we will read in the Torah about Abraham and Sarah in another kind of shelter, their tent in Mamre [Gen.18]. Three strangers passed through, and amidst a culture in which a stranger could be a major threat, they invited them in. They rushed to greet them, washed their feet, and fed them. The strangers turned out to be angels telling Sarah of her pregnancy. But the beauty of the story is that Sarah and Abraham had no idea that their visitors were divine guests. This is how they treated everyone they met. A midrash on the apocryphal book of Jubilees makes this connection between the holiday of Sukkot and Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality clear. It tells us that part of their preparations for their holy guests was, in fact, building the first sukkah to shelter them.

What would the world look like if we treated everyone we encountered as worthy of our attention? What would our Jewish communities look like if every person who walked through a door were greeted like Abraham and Sarah’s guests? What would the world look like if we treated even people we don’t know across the globe with that degree of humanity?

Sukkot is the holiday of the open tent. It seems it should be the most accessible holiday, but unfortunately it is also one of the harder holidays to celebrate. Not everyone has the space or strength to build a sukkah. If you are fortunate enough to have one, imitate Abraham and Sarah during the remaining days of the holiday and welcome someone who has never been to a sukkah or doesn’t think he knows enough about Judaism to partake. There is a kabbalistic custom to invite ushpizin, ancestral, transcendent guests, into the sukkah.  But even more important is filling your sukkah with real, flesh-and-blood visitors. This Sukkot, may we go above and beyond to make people feel like the divine guests that they are—when they enter our institutions, our work, our homes and our tents.

Interfaith Language Sensitivity

Speech bubbleWe here at InterfaithFamily believe, like the rabbis of old, that language is extremely important. The rabbis of the Talmud wrote about the power of words. God created the world with words. God said, “Let there be…” and there was. The rabbis said that to embarrass someone was akin to killing their soul (bringing blood to the face). They spoke against lashon harah (gossip—literally the evil tongue). There are prayers about guarding our tongues from evil and our lips from deceit. The Amidah, the central prayer in the Jewish worship service, begins with a line asking God to open our lips that our mouth can declare God’s glory. The old adage, “sticks and stones can break our bones but words can never hurt us” is indeed not very Jewish. The words “thing” and “word” in Hebrew share the same root “d’var” teaching that our words create reality.

It is because words are so important that you may notice that we avoid using the term, “non-Jew” because we don’t promote the idea that someone can be a “non-entity.” We rather say, “someone not Jewish.” You may feel that this is just semantics, but we disagree.

Many Jewish institutions ask people if they are affiliated with a congregation on membership forms and surveys. The Jewish world wants to know who is a member of a synagogue and what behaviors they have as opposed to people who are not members of a synagogue. We are also interested in tracking synagogue membership for dozens of other reasons (although the topic of another blog, I personally believe it is extremely difficult to raise children with Judaism without the help of a congregation or organized community whether school, community center or chavurah).

Here are my top five reasons for not using the word “unaffiliated” anymore:

  1. This is an insider Jewish professional term that creates even more distance between the paid leaders and the people. Sometimes people do not know what it means to be “affiliated” and thus again on Jewish flyers and brochures are words and sentiments that don’t ring a bell or resonate and can make people feel like outsiders.
  2. Affiliation is a euphemism (don’t you love euphemisms?) meaning that someone pays synagogue dues. In rare cases, someone may feel so connected to a Jewish Community Center that they feel they “go” there or “belong” there but by and large this term is asking if someone is a member of a synagogue. If we want to know if someone goes to a synagogue, we should ask that and then explain why “we” want to know that.
  3. People may be affiliated with many different things that bring them closer to Judaism and this question, implying synagogue membership, is outdated, not nuanced and doesn’t refer to the interesting places people go and what that brings them there. For instance, some people are affiliated with or connected to secular non-profits like food depositories, animal shelters, hospitals and educational programs. Volunteer work for these causes brings sacred purpose and is done in the name of tikkun olam (repairing our broken world).
  4. Some people have been turned off by synagogues and being asked over and over whether they are affiliated with a synagogue can feel like a reminder that they are outsiders, or even different from “good” Jews and that their disconnect is problematic. Maybe we should be asking people what synagogues could offer or feel like, and whether they would like to have clergy in their lives for counseling, life cycle events and learning opportunities. It’s not that people don’t want this. They are not sure if they will find these things in synagogues.
  5. Jewish leaders have a goal of increasing affiliation rates. There are many reasons for this. Interfaith families connected to congregations typically have high levels of Jewish behavior like celebrating holidays, sending children to religious school, etc. Jewish leaders want to ensure that people are “doing Jewish” because it is a civilization and a way of life worthy of living and passing on, and because we care about Jewish continuity. I think synagogues, in theory (and many in practice), are definitely the best vehicles for helping people live Jewishly and pass it on to the next generation. But because it is “positive” to be affiliated, it can be interpreted as “negative” to be unaffiliated, as though one is harming the Jewish people. Nobody wants to wear or own a negative label or have a finger pointed at them.

Language matters. Labels matter. This is how people end up feeling connected or disconnected. If we stop calling people “unaffiliated” and start talking about who they are, what they are interested in or what would make them want to join or help create an organized Jewish community, we may find more answers.

Why Phish is Like Judaism for Newbies

This guest blog post is by my husband, Andrew Garnett-Cook

Andrew at Phish

Andrew at a Phish show

Recently, I went to see Phish, one of my favorite bands.  Over the course of 20 years, I’ve been to many of their shows. I was first introduced to Phish while in college and, despite a long period where I virtually stopped listening to them, I still enjoy their music and the community that surrounded them.

One thing that one must understand about Phish is that there is a tribal quality to its fans and their love for, and knowledge of, Phish music. Within the Phish world, there are stories, legends, unspoken understandings and a profound sense of shared experience borne of years of having spent time following the band from place to place during their sometimes extensive tours.

Even more interesting is the relationship of the band to the music.  Phish fans spend a great deal of time examining and scrutinizing Phish’s live music, dissecting jams and comparing them with some of the best versions of particular songs ever done live.  Certain live versions of their songs are considered classics among the fans and are spoken of with reverence that might seem excessive to anyone not familiar with the world of Phish.

 

However, once you step even an inch outside the tribal world of Phish and its community of fans, songs that are instantly recognizable classics are virtual unknowns. How many of you have ever heard of “You Enjoy Myself”? Or “Down with Disease”? Or “Ghost”? These are to Phish fans what “Hey Jude” and “Stairway to Heaven” are to the larger world of fans of rock music.

In short, fans of Phish have a shared community united around a shared past, common experience, rituals and intimate knowledge of the band and its music, though all of these things are foreign to the outside world.

For me, this is not unlike Judaism. As someone who is not Jewish, but is married to a Jew, entering the Jewish world meant being exposed to a community who also have a shared past, common experiences, rituals and intimate knowledge of the language, practices and songs associated with religious gatherings. Like the person who is not a fan of Phish, these things would be unfamiliar to someone who is not Jewish and has never been exposed to that world.

The thing to remember is that both the world of Phish and the Jewish community are, in my experience, inviting and supportive communities. A newbie at a Phish concert would be welcomed warmly and some dedicated Phishhead would be all too happy to walk them through the history of each song. Likewise, for me, introduction to the Jewish world has been at the heart of a supportive community at our synagogue, led by a rabbi who has embraced interfaith couples and made them feel welcome in the community. Because of this, I have had time to relax, become familiar with Judaism and feel like the Jewish community is one to which I can contribute.

My advice to other interfaith couples? Even if something seems unfamiliar at first or inaccessible to you, do not conclude it must be so. Like entry into the world of Phish, entering into the world of Judaism and becoming comfortable in that world takes time, commitment and a willingness to be a little uncomfortable for a while. But, a good community will welcome you in and give you the time and space to find your way.

Wanted: Members

The Chancellor of the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary wrote a recent article which appeared in the Wall Street Journal titled “Wanted: Converts to Judaism.” In the article, Eisen writes, “I am asking the rabbis of the Conservative movement to use every means to explicitly and strongly advocate for conversion, bringing potential converts close and actively making the case for them to commit to Judaism. I am asking Jewish leaders to provide the funding needed for programs, courses and initiatives that will place conversion at the center of Jewish consciousness and the community’s agenda.”

I can just see it now: When you enter a Conservative synagogue, there will be billboards that will say, “Have you considered conversion to Judaism?” Partners who are not Jewish but are part of a Jewish family and raising children with Judaism may want to run the other way or hide for fear of being encouraged to convert when they have not expressed a desire or openness to do so.

Today I spoke with someone whose husband describes himself as “Jew-ish.” He has no other faith or religion in his life today in his mind or heart or soul. He is raising a Jewish son and is enjoying the journey immensely. He leaves work early each month for a family Shabbat experience at our local JCC. He already dreams about his son’s bar mitzvah. He does not want to convert at the present time. He feels that it would hurt his family to become a different religion. He feels it is too much of a break from his family of origin and too drastic. He loved his upbringing and feels close to his extended family and this seems like it would cause unnecessary pain to them.

Instead of using “every means to explicitly and strongly advocate for conversion,” why not explicitly and strongly say that when an interfaith family joins a congregation, then the partner who isn’t Jewish has become a “member of the community.” Being a “member of the community” would be a status granted because this person is making a statement that the majority of American Jews are not making any more. That statement is that Judaism is best lived in community and that for the community to exist we need structures that can house and support learning, worship, life cycle events, pastoral care and social justice work. When an interfaith family joins a congregation, the surveys indicate they behave similarly to in-married families. The synagogue is a vehicle for Jewish behavior and Jewish continuity.

When someone becomes a “member,” he or she will hopefully be enticed to want more learning and may even want the spiritual experience that most liberal Jews have not enjoyed of immersing in a mikveh. I would encourage any liberal Jew to immerse in a mikveh when they as adults have chosen Judaism by supporting a congregation or raising children with Judaism.

Joining a congregation can be a prohibitive financial pursuit and thus there are people who want to join who can’t. Our money should be going to creating different synagogue financial structures, not toward funding programs aimed at conversion. This looks at people in only two categories—Jewish or not Jewish. The statement Eisen is making is that we want all those in our community to be “Jews.” This doesn’t take into account that for a partner who is not Jewish to join a congregation, it means that they are more than “not Jewish.” And they don’t need to be changed in order to live as Jews and to enrich the Jewish community.

Open Doors on Beacon Hill

Front of Vilna ShulNestled within Boston’s picturesque Beacon Hill neighborhood, the Vilna Shul is a gem that the city is lucky to have. The cultural center opens its doors widely to the entire Boston community, offering substantive Jewish programming, dynamic historical and contemporary exhibits and an egalitarian minyan (a Jewish prayer group).

In this interview, which is as fascinating as the Vilna Shul itself, Program Manager Jessica Antoline discusses what sets the Vilna Shul apart from many organizations, and provides a glimpse into the uniquely honest and well-rounded framework with which the shul’s staff coordinates programming.

The Vilna Shul continues to honor its long multicultural history and has been a wonderfully inclusive space for Jewish interfaith and interracial families to celebrate life cycle events and participate in programming.

 


What sets the Vilna Shul apart from other organizations and spiritual communities?

There are so many things! I like to think that the Vilna stands apart for three reasons:

1. On a historical level, we are it—the last synagogue from the era that brought most Jews to Boston (1880-1924). It’s an era that changed the city entirely, and we are the only place where you can learn about the Jewish contribution to that change.

2. We are also a hybrid organization, functioning both spiritually and culturally when we need to. We are non-denominational and open to all walks of Jewish life. Just to give you an example, we can have a Shabbat one day and a lecture on the rise of Jewish atheists the next. It’s very exciting.

3. I like to think that all of us at the Vilna try to share a realistic rather than idealistic Jewish story. We love to tell the happy stories, but we will never shy away from the dark sides of Jewish history. Jews are humans. We can both build up and break the world so easily. As I like to say to our visitors, Jewish people are all pieces of one dynamic culture worth celebrating. But we were never a people apart, never a people who stayed static in our actions or philosophies. Like every person we have our light and dark sides to our history. Like every people we need to evaluate who we are and what we are doing in and for this world. At the Vilna, we challenge what it means to be Jewish, what Jewish traditions and histories are and where they come from without any judgment or criticism. Through this open line of communication, I like to think we help strengthen people’s understanding of themselves and their community.

Purim at Vilna Shul

Purim at the Vilna Shul in 2014

What are the ways in which interfaith families and couples have enriched the Vilna Shul?

They help us keep our focus and ensure that we are doing our job. At the Vilna Shul our mission is to preserve and share Jewish culture in ways that are open and accessible to everyone, Jewish or not. What is the Vilna if it is not offering the public what it wants and needs? It becomes just a building without any life. Interfaith couples and families bring new perspectives, lead members of the community to think closely about their words and actions, and help everyone understand each other on a level far deeper than if they were absent from the community.

What programming do you offer that support the needs of interfaith families? How have those initiatives or programs helped the community and those families and couples?

All of our programming is open to interfaith families. Generally when it comes to addressing their needs, we do it within programs during the planning process rather than hosting programs about interfaith issues. (We know that is your field, not ours!) We ensure that every program we offer can be accessed equally by those who identify as Jewish and those who do not.  From having words in transliteration and translation to working specifically with scholars, historians, musicians and others who are experienced in working with diverse groups, we always try to answer the question “would I understand this concept if I lived outside of a Jewish context?” before bringing a program to the public.

Our Havurah on the Hill Shabbats and holiday celebrations are an excellent example of this. HOH was designed to be accessible to everyone. It’s actually the number one thing people love about the program. The young Jews who attend come from many backgrounds: children of traditional Jewish backgrounds, children of interfaith parents, couples who are interfaith but considering a Jewish path, Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, secular…everything!

In your experience or based upon what members/visitors have told you, what are the salient considerations regarding interfaith families that the Vilna Shul takes into consideration when making institutional decisions or developing programming and education?

Language is always a consideration, based on what our community has told us. They appreciate that we try to make everything we do accessible so we always consider that when making a program. They also appreciate when we bring in many histories based on who is in the audience. For example, if we know that someone attending a program may have a friend, child, or partner who is Catholic-Irish or Hindu or Baptist African American, we try and take the time to make reference to their histories and any connections they have to Jewish history.

What brings you the most joy in your work, particularly your and the Vilna Shul’s leadership around diversity and inclusion?

Actually, what I just talked about brings me the most joy. Being open to everyone, being known as a safe, accessible place to talk about all aspects of Jewish culture, makes me love my job. No one is here to define your Jewishness for you. Instead, you are given access to information and a non-judgmental atmosphere. You must decide the rest! Sounds easy, right? But the pursuit of knowledge and freedom of choice are such difficult paths to take.

I smile when I see interfaith couples getting married at the Vilna. I love seeing a child of an interfaith and intercultural relationship shine as they read from the Torah during their bar or bat mitzvah. My heart soars when a Muslim student tells me he finally found a place and a person to ask the questions he was holding inside for so long.

New Ideas about Jewish Newcomers

IdeaI’ve been out and about lately (Diversity Shabbat at Temple Chai in Long Grove and the PJ Library Conference in Baltimore) hearing some things that are making me think. I am a philosophizing kind of gal, so I love to hear new nuggets that stop me and give me pause.

These are random comments I have heard which I share with you. I look forward to your thoughts about them.

  1. Should we be speaking more about what Judaism cares about, stands for, values and teaches in addition to or instead of what Jews care about or what Jews value? When we speak about what Judaism stands for, it is an open invitation for anybody to learn more about our civilization, language, land, culture, texts and traditions. When we speak about Judaism, one can appreciate, be inspired by and learn from it whether or not that person is Jewish by birth or upbringing.
  2. When trying to ascertain if someone is interested in Jewish experiences and opportunities, a question could be, “Do you have a connection to Judaism?” This is a beautiful, open and non-threatening or judgmental way in to conversation. Connections is what “we” want. Someone might say that he or she has a Jewish parent or grandparent. Maybe a connection is having Jewish friends or having taken a class on Judaism.
  3. I have now heard several times in the last few days from someone who was not raised with Judaism who is now raising Jewish children that he or she does not believe their synagogue community or Jewish leaders always understand, articulate and value the sacrifice he or she has made to do this, the pain it has caused their extended family, the struggle it has been and their pride in this feat.
  4. Someone who is not Jewish who is part of a Jewish community may wonder if the Jews around them feel affected by their presence. More than one person has said to me in the past few days that he or she wonders if Jews feel self-conscious about their presence or feel that their presence changes the dynamics of the community. When I have heard these comments, they have made me cringe and then I check myself in a cheshbon ha-nefesh—an accounting of the soul—something we do at Yom Kippur. We speak about wanting a diverse Jewish community. In our eyes, minds and hearts, what does this look like, sound like and feel like? Is someone who’s newer to Judaism considered the “other,” and do they stand out? What can we do about this?

What Does it Mean to Be Welcoming

The following is a guest post by Gina Hagler, reprinted from her blog, Musings of Ruth

WelcomeI’ve been part of the interfaith community for many years. I’ve felt comfortable, uncomfortable, welcome, tolerated, and most points between on the spectrum. I can tell you which things left me feeling more or less comfortable. I can even give you a definition-in-progress of what I would consider a welcoming congregation. What I hadn’t thought of before last night, is how many aspects of welcome are universal.

Why are we making it so complicated when we sit together as Jews to assess how welcoming our congregations are? Why are we trying to look at ourselves through the eyes of others – especially others who are coming to us from a world view we have not experienced firsthand? Why are we making this such a Herculean task?

Perhaps we should first think about what has made us feel welcome in new experiences. We’ve all been the fish out of water at one point or another. What made it less painful? What eased our introduction? What made us feel we could return? What made us want to return? Why isn’t this our simple first step to understanding how to put “strangers” at ease.

While I was still shaky in my Jewish identity, I took my kids up to New York several years in a row for winter break. I wanted to take them to services but I certainly didn’t know any synagogues in NYC. I wasn’t that confident that I would know exactly what to do once I got into the synagogue, but I wanted my kids to see that the services they participated in at our temple had elements in common with services at all synagogues. I did a search on synagogues in Manhattan and found Central Synagogue.

From the moment the site opened, I knew this was where we would go. The tone of the site, the readily available information, the pride the synagogue had in its history — all lent itself to the implicit expectation that of course we would want to visit and of course we were welcome. We went and sat in the way back – clearly newcomers and clearly not your standard Jews since 2/3 of the kids were Asian. People turned around to smile at us. Someone approached us to ask if we needed a Siddur as he held one up for us to see. He told us we were welcome to join them downstairs after the service for an Oneg made up of simple food.

Within five minutes of entering the building, we had been informally welcomed, given what we needed to participate if we chose to in a way that did not assume we were familiar with the object, and invited to something we may not have known about in a way that explained all we needed to know to feel bold enough to check it out. My kids felt right at home. They were delighted to hear prayers they knew and to be able to join in. They were thrilled to hear tropes that were familiar. There was no way they were leaving without the Oneg. They met some other kids. Several adults made it clear I was welcome to join in their conversations. Ever since, we make it a point to attend services there whenever we are in New York.

This synagogue was not specifically trying to attract interfaith families, or even families from ambiguous or undecided Jewish backgrounds. They were trying to attract those interested in a Jewish life, without making a distinction between faith backgrounds. As strange as it may seem, I felt more immediately welcome at that temple than I have at any other temple I’ve visited. I’m convinced it is because they were genuinely proud of what they had to offer and genuinely happy to have us.

Maybe when we’re trying to decide how to make someone comfortable at our temple, we should start by thinking about what makes us comfortable and ask ourselves if our congregation is welcoming anyone – Jewish or not – in such a way. Maybe the first step in making people feel welcome is to be welcoming.