Like Abraham or Sodom?

By Paula C. Yablonsky


Last spring I made the decision to return to college. It had been 20-plus years since I have sat in a classroom and I was anxious about what becoming a college student again would entail. The night before classes started, I had a very disturbing dream. I was at the university and wandering about the campus looking for my classroom. I tried to ask those I saw where the building was, but everybody else was busy rushing about trying to find their place. Eventually, I found my classroom. Everybody was talking and laughing with each other, sharing the news of what they did during their winter break and once in a while, taking a look at m me, but not smiling, not saying hello. The professor enters and starts to lecture, throwing out questions. I keep raising my hand, attempting to provide an answer, but the professor never calls upon me. The more I try to participate, the more excluded I begin to feel. I awoke with a start and dreaded the next day.

My worries about returning to school reminded me of the ones I had when I entered the Jewish community. I worried about being of a different faith and not knowing Hebrew, not understanding what was happening during services. I worried about saying or doing the wrong thing. Would members of the congregation pull away from me when they found out I wasn’t Jewish? I had promised my husband that if we had any children, we would raise them in the Jewish faith. Was this even a remote possibility?

I am reminded of the passages in the Torah when Abraham is sitting by the entrance of his tent and sees three strangers approaching. He runs to welcome the travelers, and offers them hospitality. He orders Sarah to make cakes and he kills a choice calf for dinner. Abraham implores the guests to rest in the shade and performs the custom of washing their feet. In return for his hospitality and kindness, the strangers reveal to Abraham that by the same time the next year, Sarah will have given birth to a son.

Who were these three individuals? Rabbinic commentators believe that they were malachim, divine messengers on their way to the nearby cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to pronounce God’s decision to destroy the cities.

What wickedness could be so great that a place and all its inhabitants must be annihilated? I once read an unsigned editorial in Tikkun magazine that set me to thinking. The editorial stated that “According to Jewish tradition, the sin of Sodom was not homosexuality, but rather insensitivity to the needs of the stranger.” It discussed the same messengers who were greeted with such welcome from Abraham proceeding to the city of Sodom. There they were accosted by an angry mob, demanding that Lot had them over. The rabbis argue that this was consistent with the way the citizens of Sodom greeted strangers coming into their midst. For this sin of refusing the treat the stranger, the powerless, in a welcoming way, the city of Sodom merited destruction.

After reading this editorial, I sat and contemplated on the way we greet the strangers who come to our synagogues. Are we failing to meet this challenge of welcoming the stranger in the way that Abraham did?

And I wondered who might be feeling estranged from our synagogues? The newly affiliated members wondering if they will be greeted when they attend services, if they will make any friends, and if and how they fill fit in. The widowed–no longer part of a couple, lost without the person they considered their other half, trying to adjust to being single. Those who are disabled, the bereaved, the single parent, those suffering from illness, the unemployed can all perceive themselves as strangers outside Abraham’s tent or as being overlooked as I was in my dream.

A recent survey of a congregation in my area revealed some interesting data: 50 new members had joined the synagogue in the past two years; 72 percent of new members under the age of 60 have a non-Jewish partner; 56 percent of all new members (regardless of age) have a non-Jewish partner. Forty-six percent of new members are on reduced dues–compared with 35 percent of all members who are on reduced dues.

I recalled a conversation I had with my rabbi about the possible reasons for the changes in membership. He told me that synagogues are going through a significant transformation. Two generations ago, people came to synagogues because they were Jews; now they come to synagogues to become Jews. A quick look at demographics reveals many who are the strangers in our midst: the intermarried who wonder if they can find the spiritual nurturing they need for raising their Jewish child; the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender individuals who look in our doorway and hesitate, wondering about the welcome they will receive if they dare venture any further; women and men disconnected from their Jewish upbringing who wonder if perhaps Judaism has changed since the days they were in Hebrew school. It is the new mission of our synagogues to be like Abraham and run out and greet them. It is our goal to create a place where all can find the spiritual nourishment they seek. It is our mission to create a caring community which is an extension of our own families.

Haven’t we all felt at some point in our lives as if we were the stranger, the other? I believe we need to look within ourselves and remember feeling disconnected, foreign or estranged. We need to draw upon our own remembrances of powerlessness. When we are the ones to welcome, when we have the power to act hospitably, with charity and generosity and kindness, we need to welcome the stranger within our walls and at our doors.

How do we do this? We do this by recognizing people and treating them with respect. We do this by creating a culture within our synagogues that promotes identity and shows that who they are, where they come from, truly does matter. That every person in our midst truly counts. Being a stranger creates an internal sense of stress. When we as a synagogue community take the initiative, we can ease those fears. Perhaps the words from the Reform Movement’s High Holiday prayer book can help guide us:

“Open wide the gates of righteousness; open wide the gates of blessing for us all; open the gates of understanding and virtue–open them, open them wide for us to enter…”

May we be like Abraham–opening closed doors and welcoming all who wish to enter our synagogues and our communities with warmth and dignity.


About Paula C. Yablonsky

Paula C. Yablonsky is the co-editor of TechKnowledgies. Paula lives in western Pennsylvania with her husband, Mark Gibbons.