It’s time to invite newcomers into our ‘big Jewish tent’
Imagine you are trekking through town on a scorching summer day when you pass a man sitting at the entrance to his home, which happens to have all its doors open. The man and his wife, whom you have never met, invite you into their home, provide you with water to drink, food to eat, a refreshing shower and even rest in their den or guest room.
While this may not seem plausible to most of us — city dweller or suburbanite — it is familiar to Bible readers. It is an updated version of the story of Abraham and Sarah, Jewish ancestors who modeled a variety of important values and behaviors for us.
Long before the rabbis began to codify actions in Jewish law, Abraham and Sarah innocently modeled simple welcoming Jewish behavior. They did not just invite guests into their home; they served them. They offered them water with which to wash, and they provided them with physical and spiritual sustenance. Their actions actively communicated one message to their guests: All are welcome in our tent.
Certainly, this story of Abraham and Sarah’s tent — as described in Genesis 18 and explicated in the midrash — is particularly timely, as we begin the yearly cycle of Torah readings. Even more so, the story of Abraham and Sarah is directly relevant to what the Jewish community has become and where it wants to be.
The community today has the opportunity to realize its potential as one big tent. Like Abraham and Sarah, we can open our doors on all sides to welcome, include and serve all who would enter, regardless of where they may be on their religious journeys, their choices of life partners, their race and anything else that has the potential to contribute to the beautiful diversity that has become the Jewish community.
“But rabbis,” some may respond, “my Jewish institution already is welcoming.”
We have no doubt your institution is welcoming — to you. For those of us on the inside — and we happily count ourselves among them — it is difficult to imagine our Jewish homes, synagogues and organizations as potentially cold and unwelcoming places.
But we are insiders. Those who have not yet ventured into our homes, synagogues and community centers may not have experienced that sense of community. Perhaps, they’ve never been invited. Or maybe, they ventured in, but we insiders did not rush to greet an unfamiliar face, instead expecting that job to fall to someone else.
The tension between how we feel about our institutions and how newcomers perceive them is one with which we must grapple.
It is why we have chosen to issue a challenge to everyone involved in the Jewish community: We must look at our institutions from the outside. We need to evaluate how our institutions can best welcome all newcomers, those who have not yet stepped over the threshold.
It’s time to put out our welcome mats. Let’s post signs that say, “All are welcome,” and state it in the marketing materials and on the Web sites of our institutions. To truly welcome all, we must look at why newcomers are choosing not to engage with the Jewish community and address those reasons head on. For example, the cost of membership and programming can often stand in the way of those who would like to engage in our institutions.
By giving newcomers free samples of our offerings, we can lower their barriers to participation and provide access to Jewish community programming.
We can make our institutions more welcoming by posting signs outside and within our buildings clearly indicating entrances and program locations. Let’s station greeters at our entrances before all events, like services at synagogue or book fairs at JCCs. We can even enlist active members in the mitzvah of outreach by encouraging them to invite newcomers to meals after such events or establishing a buddy system simply by introducing those with common interests to create more of a social connection.
We can offer a personal welcome by providing names of contact people — and being responsive — rather than a general information number or “info@” e-mail address. And let’s make sure we have some basic, yet enticing, information available about what our organizations offer to newcomers, so the onus is not on them to navigate their way in by themselves.
Rabbis and lay leaders can lower literacy barriers by being more aware of their diverse populations; we should create a supportive environment for Hebrew and Yiddish translation and avoid other forms of “in-speak.” We must have programs specifically directed to different populations, including young adults, single parents, empty nesters and young couples with and without children.
Lay leaders and Jewish professionals can work together to plan programming outside of their institutional buildings to expand their reach to those who are not yet comfortable entering a Jewish building.
The fear of a shrinking and increasingly unengaged Jewish population seems to pervade the thoughts of Jewish community leaders and philanthropists and provides the motivation for many of our current communal programs and structures. But the Big Tent Judaism we are advocating emerges from the foundational value system of Judaism, which is not based in fear but rather in the joy of sharing what we find so wonderful about being Jewish.
It is time for the Jewish community to rally together around the issue of welcoming newcomers. No mitzvah is repeated more often in the Torah than to “welcome the stranger.” (“Stranger” is not our preferred translation because of its sometimes negative connotations in English, so we say “newcomer.”)
Welcoming newcomers is not the domain of just one movement or institution. We must coordinate across denominational and organizational lines to determine what works best in finding and reaching people, how we on the inside can engage those on the outside and what are the messages that will draw them in.
If we are to carry Abraham and Sarah’s message forward, we are obligated to join our voices together to advocate for a more welcoming and inclusive Jewish community. Together, we can form a tent like Abraham and Sarah and grow an inclusive and welcoming Jewish community. Together, we can transform the Jewish community into a “Big Tent.”
Rabbi Elliot Dorff is the rector, Sol & Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor in Philosophy and co-chair of the bioethics department at American Jewish University. He is also on the Big Tent Judaism advisory board.Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which will launch the Big Tent Judaism coalition (www.BigTentJudaism.org) at its annual conference in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 14.