The unforgivable sin I committed Yom Kippur morning
With my mind racing with what I would be saying in synagogue, how I will be praying, and the powerful meaning of this day, I barely noticed what was going on in the street. I rushed into synagogue thinking of ten different things at the same time. As I walked in, right when the service was about to begin, I looked around at the empty seats which would all be full once we got started, my eyes caught two young ladies sitting down, looking around with hesitation. They seemed like real outsiders; they did not know that most people don't show up at the time the morning service is called for. They seemed unsure as to whether they were in the right seat or not, why the place was not full yet, and what prayer they should be saying right now. They projected uncertainty and insecurity.
My instinct pushed me to walk over to them, ask them where they are from, or if anything I can do for them. I didn't. I had hundreds of people coming to the service, sermons and comments to deliver, and my own praying to do. I can speak to them when the service is over, I told myself. They will be fine, I thought–they weren’t.
Twenty minutes later I looked around again, they were gone. Realizing what had happened, I started to panic. I looked again. And again. And again. But they were gone. They had left the synagogue and I never saw them again.
These two young ladies, are just some of the thousands of Jews who step through our synagogues during the High Holiday season, and I was just one of the many who failed to engage them and make sure they felt welcome and at home in synagogue.
This was yet another validation of the statistics showing one of four Jews leaving religion, a growing number of Jews without an affiliation, and many Jews no longer identifying as Jewish, which have been the gloomy talking points in Jewish circles ever since the Pew study of American-Jews was released in 2013.
Mistakes can serve as obstacles that disparage and devitalize us; they can also serve as powerful, invigorating, and eye-opening experiences. So I decided to make the most of this horrible mistake.
I spent many hours looking into the subect of inclusion and the power of greeting and had since learned that the power of inclusion, welcoming, and increased connectivity are not only socially appreciated—but scientifically necessary.
In a study published in Psychological Science, lead author Dr. Eric Wesselman, a psychology professor at Purdue University, points out that:” simple eye contact is sufficient to convey inclusion. In contrast, withholding eye contact can signal exclusion…Diary data suggest that people feel ostracized even when strangers fail to give them eye contact. Experimental data confirm that eye contact signals social inclusion, and lack of eye contact signals ostracism. Wesselman went on to experiment the matter and found that people who were “looked through” as if they were thin air–even in busy and crowded areas– felt more disconnected than those who were looked at.
It is safe to say though, that we all know that others appreciate being acknowledged, smiled at, and welcomed. So why don't we do it as often as we should? A 2005 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that the main reason we fail to engage with others as often as we would like to is because of our fear of rejection and that others will not be interested in engaging with us. We believe that others lack interest and for that reason fail to engage them. True, some people people probably do lack interest and want to be left alone– most people don't.
I went on to experiment on this in my own armature way. I started saying hello to people I had never met, inviting them for a Shabbat meal, or just having a small chat. No surprises here. Most people were really moved, appreciative, and receptive to those gestures.
Amy Rees Anderson,points out in her Forbes article “Make Eye Contact, Smile and Say Hello,” how we have all been in a situation social situation where nobody knew us. “Then some superhero — a stranger —comes up and smiles, puts out their hand and says “hello.” And just like that, the awkwardness is over. “
This year, let's make an effort to be another person's superhero.
As Jews, we have now been “traveling” together for more than three thousand years. We have faced our spiritual and physical utter obliteration time and again, and yet we survived. At times of distress and persecution we stand united and the strength we find in turning to each other helped us survive. However, this cannot be what brings us together. As Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom points out ““If unity is to be a value it cannot be one that is sustained by the hostility of others alone.”
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are great opportunities to stand up to our shared historical experience, the undeniable bond of the present, and create a bright destiny for Jewish future. Let us reach out to each other with love, friendship, and kindness. We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to each other, we owe it to our history. Most importantly, we owe it to our future.
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He lives with his wife in New York City