I’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.