A Welcoming Congregation

round challah userpicGood news: This post is not about Decision 2016!

If you’ve been reading my blog long enough, you know I typically wait until I have at least three articles on a subject before writing up a news chum post. But two articles crossed my feeds today, and I feel they are important enough to break that rule. They both concern areas where we have failed to be sufficiently welcoming — or overly welcoming — in our progressive Jewish congregations.

The first, from Kveller, talks about how painful Jewish holidays can be for an introvert. The author writes: “Three times a day every day, we’re supposed to pray in a group consisting of at least 10 people. In my community, there are daily classes and one-on-one sessions of Torah learning where attendance is strongly recommended. Having Shabbat guests at your table is considered a must. Mind you, this is just during the course of a regular week. The holidays—especially the eight-day ones—barely allow for breathing space between parties.” I saw this first hand during Yom Kippur, when the mass of people at our High Holy Day services was too much for an introvert I know, and they had to retreat to the quiet of the office, away from the service. As Jews, we come from a culture that emphasizes the value of community, and community being there to support you. Yet for some, being in that community is overwhelming — and our urge — to go over and welcome them — is just what they don’t need. They need the quiet, the space. Somehow, we need to create worship spaces that are both communal and yet apart; spaces that permit people to join the community without being surrounded by the masses that make them uncomfortable. It is a different way of welcoming — recognizing that welcoming may be something different than a hug or a handshake. The article concludes: “remember the introverts this holiday season and give them credit for hosting meals and going to synagogue and not walking in the alley to avoid seeing you. Take the time to praise and encourage your introvert friends—preferably in a non-confrontational way such as an e-mail or text, as opposed to showing up at their door unannounced. And may all extroverts and introverts alike be blessed with a happy, healthy, and sweet New Year.”

The second is an NPR piece about a black, Jewish woman and how she never felt a part of her progressive Jewish congregation. She writes: “I’m a black woman. No one ever assumes I’m Jewish. When I talk about Judaism, people look at me in a way that makes me feel like I’m breaking into my own house. Especially the people inside the house.” This reminds us of yet another hidden incorrect assumption we make: just as not all Jewish are the hugging community type, not all Jews are white Eastern European — the stereotype the media has created of Jews. Not all Jews are Semitic (which is why one writes “antisemitism”, not “anti-Semitism”). Jews can come from all ethnicities; further, non-white Jews are not all converts. Jewish communities have existed around the globe for centuries, and we should not question or make assumptions about people of color in our congregations. Especially we should not assume based on gender. This woman wrote about visiting a congregation with her non-Jewish white boyfriend, “As soon as we walked in, I started feeling like an accessory. This was a superprogressive synagogue, and I wasn’t the only person of color in the congregation. But the way people greeted him first, always; the way someone explained to me what to expect of the service (It will be an hour long with portions in Hebrew and English); the way an usher smiled and asked me, not my boyfriend, What brings you here?

If, as progressive Jews, we envision our sanctuaries as safe, welcoming spaces, we must recognize that Jews come not only in all shapes and sizes, but in all varieties of skin colors and genders. They all have their different comfort levels about community, and we must grow in sensitivity to be aware of this. We must figure out ways to be welcoming without causing pain, welcoming without preconceived assumptions. Only in that way can we create in our congregations a tent of welcoming, and more importantly, a culture that welcomes.