Thank you for being a part of our 9th year of Jewels of Elul. I hope that you found the Jewels from the past 29 days to be mind and heart opening.
This year’s edition on The Art of Welcoming took on extra significance as it coincided with the opening of the new Pico Union space downtown. When we took possession of the property in January, I had no idea how quickly our dream of creating a multi-faith house of worship and cultural arts center would become a reality. For our first three events, hundreds of people from multiple faiths and communities came together in our 105 year old synagogue and embraced the Jewish value of being a light to all nations.
For those of you who have contributed to our Capital Campaign I am ever grateful for your trust and support. If you have yet to make a contribution and value the ideal of creating a multi-faith creative space, I ask that you please join us. I can personally guarantee that your tax-deductible gift will be used wisely and efficiently. With well over 20,000 people reading the Jewels daily, your gifts will add up quickly and help us to grow the Pico Union.
As Hillel said years ago, “If not you, who? And if not now, when?” Click HERE, and we promise to make you proud in the coming year!
To a sweet, healthy and joyous new year!
Years ago, I was invited to visit the home of then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. It was the first time a U.S. Senator had allowed me to see how he lived in private and I was quite nervous. Not surprisingly, his home exuded a warm southern charm, just like his wife Tricia, and it was neat and orderly, just like Trent Lott. Correct that – it was immaculate.
I studiously avoided touching anything that could drop, break, shatter, or otherwise disrupt such a perfect home. I had been in the door not 60 seconds when Mrs. Lott asked me if I wanted a freshly powdered donut. I glanced at the Senator, perfectly quaffed as always, and then looked down at the couch that would clearly show the results of any unintended accident, immediately recognizing that there was no table to prevent such a mishap. What would I tell the impeccable Senator if the donut should fall from my plate onto his impeccable sofa?
So while my eyes said yes, my lips said no. But no is not an acceptable answer for a proper southern lady wishing to truly welcome her guest. Noticing that I was actively avoiding both food and furniture, she held the donut over the floor and said with a smile, “If I drop it, will that make you comfortable enough that you’ll have something to eat?” She knew a dramatic gesture was needed to put me at ease.
It was the perfect welcome for the wary guest and I still smile about it today. And yes, I had that donut.
Frank Luntz is a political consultant, pollster, and Republican Party strategist. www.luntzglobal.com
In Hebrew or in English, ‘Barukh haba’ – blessed be the comer or ‘well come’ – may your coming be good, are terms traditionally said by the host to the guest or visitor. The words are not just an offering but imply a request. Why a request? Isn’t the host offering enough with his hospitality? It’s my contention that the ‘wel-coming’ of someone is hoping that their arrival will be a good thing for all concerned, not least the host. The offer of hospitality is done freely, hopefully, and also recognizes the ideal reciprocity of the exchange: I will offer you hospitality. You will bring me blessing.
This idea reaches back to the earliest days of the Jewish people. God tells Abram, a nomad and an immigrant, “Through you will the nations of the world be blessed.” At its simplest, this means that God will be nice to those who are nice to us. But I think it carries a richer imperative, one still aimed directly at us. As perennial, and often involuntary, visitors/immigrants, we know more than most that it is our responsibility to make sure that we are a blessing to those who host us.
Nowadays, we are getting increasingly uneasy about population shift. The western world, more affluent than at any time in human history, is starting to argue that it doesn’t have enough to share with migrants and immigrants, enough to share with refugees and asylum seekers. Welcoming brings in blessing. Absorbing others, sharing what we have enriches our world, domestic and national. We should lobby for the lowering of barriers and borders and for increased immigration.
And on the local level, let us go out and at least bring new folks into our homes so we will receive the blessing that visitors bring.
Clive Lawton is is an award winning educator and one of the founders of Limmud. www.limmud.org
The Book of Genesis (18:1-2) relates that shortly after Abraham’s Circumcision, G-d appeared while he sat recuperating in the groves of Mamrei. While he was communing with G-d, Abraham noticed, off in the distance, three nomads approaching across the desert. Without so much as an, “Excuse me,” to G-d, he immediately stood up and ran to greet them and prepared a meal for them.
From this strange incident, the Talmud derives the equally strange lesson that, “Welcoming guests is more powerful than welcoming G-d.” The Talmud does not ponder if this was the right thing to do because clearly Abraham knew—without hesitation—that this was the right thing to do. But how did Abraham know this? How did he know his actions would not offend G-d?
Abraham knew because Abraham was a holy man. Selfishly, he would have liked to spend more time with G-d. He could have asked him a lot of questions. But a holy person doesn’t do just what’s good for him; he does what’s good for reality. He is capable of transcending his personal comfort zone for the greater good, for the love of others. The truth is that when Abraham turned to greet his guests, he didn’t turn away from G-d. He turned away from one level of G-d to experience a higher level of G-d. This higher level is defined by selflessness, by doing for others.
To love G-d and to love other people is the same thing. Your love of G-d has to bring more love to others. And fundamentally, it goes even deeper than that. When you love G-d, you will love other people more. And that is the whole point of it. Ask yourself, “Do you feel that loving G-d and loving people is the same thing?” Have you been able to apply this in your life?
Rabbi Simon Jacobson is the Dean of the The Meaningful Life Center and publisher of The Algemeiner Journal. www.meaningfullife.com
Last summer, I met a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) Jewish teens at a Shabbaton for LGBTQ youth. Each teen described the experience as “the first place I’ve felt like I could be both queer and Jewish, like it was a normal thing.” I will never forget their expressions of joy and profound relief at finding a community where they could just be.
The teens shared a sense of wonder at how good it feels to be fully seen and understood. When you can be your full self in a community, they reflected, you do not notice that you are being welcomed and included; you simply feel like you are a part of things.
Their desire for an unselfconscious, easy embrace by their communities encapsulates for me what makes building a welcoming community much more than a system or set of procedures. Surely, there are steps that every community must take to become inclusive of LGBTQ people, people of color, people with disabilities, poor and working class people, and others who experience oppression. But once we change policies and implement programs, the process of change must become an art: imaginative, inspired, idiosyncratic, and organic.
No one wants to feel the labor of being welcomed. As the teens put it, we all want to feel normal and effortlessly understood. For me, true inclusion runs so deep that no one can imagine the world any other way.
Idit Klein is the Executive Director of Keshet, an organization promoting advocacy for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews. www.keshetonline.org
“And all the congregation of Israel are forgiven, along with the strangers living in their midst…” (Inspired by Numbers 15:26, used in liturgy for Kol Nidrei Service on Yom Kippur)
On Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, we encounter “the strangers living in our midst,” those who only show up to synagogue for the holidays and disappear for the rest of the year. The stranger is one who stands on the outside, an “other,” not one of us.
The Hebrew allows for a playful interpretation of the phrase quoted above. We can also read it as, “…and the stranger who resides within ourselves.” The stranger within ourselves – what can that mean? As the years pass, we become estranged from different parts of ourselves. Some parts go underground, like a dream or an aspiration that we once held. Some aspect of our personality changes so that we surrender to dishonorable instincts instead of rechanneling them in a positive direction. Welcoming the stranger within means learning to embrace ourselves in our totality. As a friend once said, “We cannot be someone else. We can only be more of ourselves.”
Here is the magic that happens when we embrace our full selves: by working on and with all aspects that comprise who we are, we can more readily embrace the stranger in our community. We open new potential pathways of connection with those who seem distant from us. We just might find that we have a lot more in common with the “strangers” who come to pray with us on the holidays than we thought and actively invite them in throughout the year.
Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., author of Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today: Creating Vibrant Centers of Jewish Life, is an organizational futurist. www.hayimherring.com
Fifteen years ago I experienced a serious bout of depression that was devastating and painful. The mental anguish and the hopelessness that entered my world at the moment when I was at a wonderful place in my career were overwhelming. It was as William Styron has termed it, a period of “Darkness Visible” with a suffocating closure of life and joy.
Through getting the right help, therapy, and medication, and through the support of good and devoted friends, I was able to survive and emerge from that challenge. The aftermath of that experience and subsequent battles with depression have left me with the appreciation for the fragility of life and the importance of friends and community who extend a hand of outreach and compassion in difficult circumstances. Elul, the tradition teaches, is a time when God is more present, ready to listen and care for the human being. The Hebrew letters of the month, we are told, are an acronym for the phrase, “Ani ledodi vedodi li.” I am (devoted) to my beloved (God) and my beloved (God) is (devoted) to me.
One of the foundational elements of Jewish ethics is the concept of imitatio dei, of following in the footsteps of the Divine in our own behavior. We are challenged, states the Talmud, to clothe the naked, bury the dead, and visit the sick as God is described as having done in the Bible. Maimonides extends this to all ethical behavior and demands of us to be God-like in all our behavior. Elul is a month to take on the challenge of being a real friend to another, to imitate the very essence of the Elul call. It is the time to be fully present and extend the hand of love and support for those who are most vulnerable and hurting, not just those hurting on the outside, but those hurting on the inside in mental anguish and turmoil.
Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot is the Chair of the Bible and Jewish Thought Departments at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in New York City. www.yctorah.org
When imagining welcoming a new life into this world, we often envision a birthing mother, sweat dripping from her brow after hours of hard labor, staring lovingly at the face which she has dreamed for many months. Pictures are posted instantly for all to see, announcing the birth within nanoseconds. Even before the umbilical cord is cut, this new soul is tied to the world. What manner of gift do we give a new life before it even enters the world? And by “gift,” I do not mean cribs, pacifiers, and bouncy seats. Babies need what we all need to survive: food, shelter, and clothing – even clothing is optional. We have baby showers because we think babies need “stuff.” But it is precisely this stuff that prevents us from giving our newborn babies the welcome they really truly need, the ultimate gift, us.
What manner of gift do we give a new life as it enters the world? Instead of newborn souls being provided the sacred welcome of their mothers’ warm body, I often witness babies unnecessarily whisked away, “cleansed” of nature’s fluids, examined by gloved hands and warmed with artificial objects. If we are to welcome these ultimate gifts into the world we must remember the capacity God gave us to embody God’s very Welcome itself. As we enter the New Year, welcomed back into life ourselves, I ask all birthing women to explore their own paths toward channeling the strength of our mothers. Study and reflect upon how Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah brought life into this world. Hear their powerful birthing voices. Envision the power of their bodies. They welcomed new life into this world without smartphones and Facebook, without worrying whether their bodies were made to birth “normally,” nothing separating them from their babies, just as generations of birthing women did before them.
Liz Creditor is a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator and a DONA Certified birth doula. www.familydoula.blogspot.com.
Read blogger Marcus J. Freed’s response to this Jewel here.
As a sixth-generation American whose relatives fought in every war from the Civil War to the Iraq War, I wanted to do something to give back to our troops who have sacrificed so much for our country.
Five years ago I organized a program called Project M.O.T., which delivers care packages to deployed American Jewish troops far from home and far from their loved ones. This small gesture of giving brings joy to the lives of our brave heroes who are risking everything.
Practically speaking our packages contain small things like CDs, dried fruit, honey, and notes to the soldiers telling them how much we appreciate their sacrifice. But the packages actually provide something much more powerful: a feeling of being remembered, cared for, and appreciated – a taste of being home.
We have been told that when “mail-call” is announced and a sailor in the middle of the ocean finds one of our boxes with his name on it, his will to continue is strengthened. A Marine in a hot sandy desert feels refreshed.
The wounded Benghazi embassy special ops troop still lying in the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center sheds tears when he receives a get well soon card from a student at a Sacramento Hebrew School.
Wherever in the world our soldiers find themselves we welcome them into a feeling of community and caring.
For Project M.O.T., the art of welcoming begins with a gesture of thanks.
Joan Glanz Rimmon is the founder of Project M.O.T., a project that reaches out and supports Jewish Service Members. www.ProjectMOT.org
At Ritz-Carlton, every one of the ladies and gentlemen who work for us carry a wallet-sized credo card with them at all times. It states our three steps of service:
1. Extend a warm welcome.
2. Anticipate and fulfill stated and unstated needs.
3. Provide a fond farewell.
As you can see from number one, welcoming is our top priority. But, in fact, all three steps are about welcoming. Only if the totality of an experience is authentically meaningful can a person truly feel welcome.
What is true of a hotel is true of a home. How often are we all guilty of asking, “How are you?” without expecting or being interested in a real answer about the other person’s successes or challenges, frustrations or fears. To truly welcome another requires truly caring about another.
This is why, above all, our success is due to the fact that our credo is not simply a collection of words. At every level, we are sincerely happy to see our guests when they arrive, appreciate the time they spend with us, and look forward to their return. It takes constant effort, but companies, too, can care.
Herve Humler is the President & Chief Operations Officer of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, L.L.C. www.ritzcarlton.com
The art of welcoming rests on a central Jewish idea: every human being is created in the image of God. When we see each other as an embodiment of Godliness, welcoming someone becomes an act of profound spirituality. Welcoming is the first step in building a relationship with another. So when I see someone walk into a worship service or JCC, I have a choice to make. I can ignore the person or I can initiate a conversation with a simple greeting of welcome. Without that crucial move there is no possibility of relationship.
Abraham and Sarah practiced the art of welcoming strangers. In parashat Vayeira Abraham is sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day, convalescing, when three strangers appear. The instant Abraham sees them he runs to welcome them, calls to Sarah and his servant to bring water and food and fulfills their needs.
Rav Dimi of Nehardea said: Hachnasat orchim – the welcoming of guests -
takes precedence over the beit midrash – the house of study.
Rav Judah said in Rav’s name: Hachnasat orchim – the welcoming
of guests – takes precedence over welcoming the shechina, the divine presence of God herself. (Shabbat 127a)
If we are to create Jewish institutions of relationships, we all must continually work on improving our ability to welcome others. It will not be enough to only have greeters at the front doors of our buildings. The upcoming High Holy Day period is our annual family reunion, the largest gathering of our people. This year, after greeting family and friends, spend three minutes welcoming someone you don’t know. If we all did it, we would change the culture of our community from transactional to relational, from cold and aloof to warm and welcoming. Tap into the Godliness within you and connect to the Godliness in others.
Dr. Ron Wolfson’s most recent book is Relational Judaism, published by Jewish Lights. www.facebook.com/relationaljudaism
Each summer my wife, Merle, and I host storytelling workshops at our North Carolina home. About two-dozen people are with us for these events. Attendees are people who have followed me as a performing storyteller and are coming in hopes of discovering personal stories of their own.
As we planned the first of these events seventeen years ago, our first task was to decide how to initially welcome these guests to our home. This was especially important as the indication was that, for many of the people, this week was the high point of their year. We decided to have them at our home for dinner. In addition, we decided that truly welcoming them was not about what we could buy for them, but about what we could do for them.
So, on their arrival night they came to our home for a meal that had several important dimensions: we planned and cooked all of the food from bread to dessert. It was a meal in which we served them totally, from wine through appetizers through the main course and on to coffee in the end. And, it was a meal in which we gathered the dishes and did all of the clean up after we sent them off to sweet dreams on their first night with us.
Our experience is that, after we welcomed our guests in this way, and every year since, they knew that we truly wanted them to be with us. It is no longer a business deal but a meaningful personal engagement. We also find that this dinner opens those who come to be present personally with us for the week. What happens is, in fact, we are welcomed by them into their hearts. No amount of work is worth more than what happens through our opening, and very home-made, “welcoming meal.”
Donald Davis tells original stories that come from his growing up in the Southern Mountains of North Carolina. www.ddavisstoryteller.com
For me, the word “welcoming” is deeply associated with the word “opening” – opening a door, a heart, a mind. Opening your eyes in order to truly see those around you, opening your mind to new ideas, opening your heart, even to what seems threatening, frightening, ominous, with the knowledge that we fear most what we are unfamiliar with. Reaching out to those whom we are suspicious of, those whom we have formed weakly based opinions of, is the key to dissolving fear and making way for growth and acceptance.
“The art of welcoming” – yes, art is all about welcoming. We artists welcome all and everything. “Bring it on,” we say! We are forever curious; life is our inspiration, life in all its diversity, misery, beauty and infinite mystery. We welcome the challenge of its unraveling and transform it into artistic offerings of myriad form.
I love welcoming people into my home. I admit, I drive myself and everyone a bit crazy before they come making sure everything is spotless and beautiful, sweet smelling flowers, good food and wine on the table, my three sweet, darling children scrubbed and dressed, all in honor of our guest, whomever he or she or they may be. Of course it doesn’t take long before it all crumbles into a lovely, warm mess of loud conversation, spotted tablecloths, stained dresses, music and mayhem…but all the merrier! Guests bring their languages, their ideas, their customs, the sound of their laughter, and most importantly, their perspective. They bring the gift of their friendship, their newness, the scent of their mysterious otherness, enriching our lives and blessing us. Be it people or ideas, I feel an open door and mind embodied in the phrase “the art of welcoming,” are the key to a fascinating, fulfilling journey through life, one I would wish upon you, and all those I love. Wishing you wings.
Noa (Achinoam Nini) is an Israeli singer and songwriter. www.noasmusic.com
Welcome. What a lovely word. Welcome to my home. Nothing pleases me more than to stand at my front door and welcome guests arriving with smiles on their faces, in anticipation of having a good time.
Welcome: “a person whose arrival gives pleasure,” says the dictionary. Come and be well. I try never to have people to my house whose arrival does not give me pleasure. I always want to be honest when I say the word, “Welcome.”
My parents taught me early on that entertaining was really an act of generosity. Welcoming people into your home, whether it be for a cup of coffee or a huge bash, is like giving everyone a gift. For me, entertaining has always been about following the golden rule. Treat your guests the way you would like to be treated. I want each guest who is welcomed into my home to feel like the honored guest. I want people to leave feeling enhanced, elevated, and valued, never diminished.
What better way to welcome a guest than to see each person as someone who will bring something to the party. When I plan an evening, big or small, I see it as a patchwork quilt where each guest has a special place in the pattern. The nicest thing people can say to me after they have left my house is that they felt like they were floating out into the night. What better reward can anyone have who has welcomed someone than to have him or her feel that way when they leave. I’ve often felt that there should be a word for those who leave. Goodbye is nice. It is a shortened version of, “God be with you,” which is a wonderful sentiment.
But I’d like to propose a new word for those taking leave. “Wellgo.” Go and be well.
Sally Quinn is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of “On Faith” for the Washington Post. www.washingtonpost.com/onfaith
In the early 1980’s as a law student in the Pico Union neighborhood of Los Angeles, I noticed several times a week people gathering in the neighborhood to march and rally. I was curious and wanted to learn about their cause. The people who had gathered were refugees from Central America – Salvadorans and Guatemalans protesting the brutality of the military dictatorships that were killing their people. The Salvadoran refugees gave testimonies about how the military would come into the classrooms and kill teachers in front of the students, how priests, nuns, youth, union leaders and teachers were kidnapped and disappeared. We learned about Archbishop Arnulfo Romero who was killed while giving mass and other horrors.
The refugees welcomed me with open arms and invited me to join them in their struggle to let the American people know about the
situation. As I translated their testimonies from Spanish to English and made them public, I was amazed by the compassion and welcoming spirit of the American people. Hundreds of churches opened sanctuaries for the refugees, saving hundreds of lives, as deportation was a death sentence for many of them.
In 1986 the refugees organized a caravan that travelled across the country. It was called, “No Human Being is Illegal,” a term introduced by Eli Wiesel. Wherever they went, they were greeted by thousands of people who welcomed them with open arms. Three decades later the refugees have become part of the social, political, cultural and economic fabric of Pico Union and the United States.
Welcoming people who are experiencing hardship can be a transformative experience for a country and individual, as it was for me.
Angela Sanbrano has dedicated her life to the struggle for peace with justice, civil rights and the empowerment of immigrants and the Latino community. www.nalacc.org
The art of welcoming is an integral part of Nefesh B’Nefesh’s daily efforts to help build a stronger Israel. Our organization has made its mark on the Jewish world by welcoming over 35,000 Olim (immigrants) since we first opened our doors in 2002. A warm welcome is a critical element in the successful absorption of these new Israeli citizens. The Oleh should feel proud of their decision, welcomed by their new neighbors, applauded for their courage, and honored for their brave and life-changing choice to come home.
Along the way we have been privileged to encounter many inspirational stories – stories of heroism and Jewish identity. Some of these stories may be viewed in a historical context such as the young man who descended the plane holding a sign in memory of his grandfather who fought in the Israeli army in 1948. In welcoming him home, we helped fulfill a grandfather’s dream and a young man’s destiny. Others represent continuity and rebirth such as the emotional welcome of Maayan Luebitz from New Jersey who was named after Maayan Naim, a 19-year-old soldier killed by a terrorist in 2004. When Maayan made Aliyah with her family we got to watch as she was greeted on the tarmac by the deceased Maayan’s bereaved parents in a tearful embrace of joy and hope.
While inspiring stories such as these abound, every Oleh has a unique story, representing the fulfillment of a century’s long journey and a lifelong dream to return to their homeland. Each welcoming is another step in the realization and fulfillment of our national destiny. That is why we make it a priority to ensure that all Olim get the warm welcome they deserve. Their place is in Israel, and our place is to open our arms and our hearts and welcome them home.
Rabbi Yehoshua Fass is Co-Founder and Executive Director of Nefesh B’Nefesh which has welcomed over 35,000 newcomers to Israel since 2002. www.nbn.org.il
The New Year is a time to take stock of what you have accomplished in the past year as well as dream of what could be if you only have the courage to stay true to your convictions. I have dedicated my life to making pluralism a reality in Israel. I want Israel to be a spiritual home to Jews from all countries and denominations. It is a process that requires dedication and faith that, sooner or later, equality will win the day.
Last year, I was arrested at the Western Wall for wearing a tallit and saying the Shema, Judaism’s central declaration of faith, in full voice. I had a realization while I sat in prison. I sat with my hands cuffed, and basic actions, like the full freedom of movement that I normally take for granted, were limited in ways I could not describe beforehand. I think I might have learned to function with such limited mobility and freedom if I stayed in those cuffs. But why should I?
Reform and progressive Jews in Israel have become accustomed to living in metaphorical handcuffs. We have been living as second
class Jews in the eyes of the State for so long that we have learned to function this way. But why should we? We all accept the statement, “It is easier to be a progressive Jew outside of Israel,” as a given. But why should we?
Equality is the Jewel that I pray for this Elul. The Jewish New Year welcomes each of us and does not discriminate on the basis of our affiliations; we all pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life. Israelis deserve pluralism and we will not rest until we are so used to it being a reality that we simply “take it for granted.”
Anat Hoffman is the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center in Jerusalem and the Chairman of Women of the Wall. www.irac.org
Read blogger Marge Eiseman’s response to this Jewel HERE.
No one would ever choose to join our club. We don’t want any new members. We welcome them sadly; they come to us reluctantly. And yet, in the darkness of a horrible storm, we are there, arms open, ready to provide comfort, assistance, and most importantly, hope.
There are common diseases and there are rare diseases; and then there’s our disease, an ultra-rare disease called familial dysautonomia, or FD, the most Jewish of the Jewish genetic diseases. Only about 650 people have ever been diagnosed with it; only about 350 are alive with it. A complex dysfunction of the nervous system, FD causes many problems involving the heart, breathing, blood pressure, digestion, orthopedics, vision, kidney failure and the lack of even the most basic functions such as the ability to swallow, feel temperature, or shed tears.
Most cases these days are diagnosed at an early age. The parents of a very sick baby have searched for an explanation of what is wrong with their child. When they get the diagnosis, their momentary relief is followed by a free fall into despair. Their doctor, their rabbi, their family, and their friends have never heard of it. Ahead of them lies a foreboding and lonely horizon.
Then we welcome them into our club, the Dysautonomia Foundation. Finally, there is someone who knows what they go through, someone who understands their pain, their doubts, their fears, not as an outsider with pity or judgment or puzzlement, but
as their soulmates with empathy and familiarity. And then, little by little, we help them see a beam of light that turns into a beacon of hope. Here is hope, here is treatment, here is research, and here are others who are ready to help. Welcome.
David Brenner is Executive Director of the Dysautonomia Foundation. www.familialdysautonomia.org
As a child at Jewish summer camp, I liked playing drama games. One of my favorites was “mirroring.” Facing my partner, we tried to mimic each other’s movements so closely that a bystander couldn’t guess who was leading and who was following. Fast-forward about twenty years, I became a volunteer Mikveh Guide, showing and teaching visitors, many of them first-time users of any mikveh, through a new and potentially frightening ritual. And yet, I discovered that I wasn’t ever the leader.
As a Mikveh Guide I would mirror the energy of the person who came to immerse in the ritual bath. The woman who arrived bubbly, telling me the details of her daughter’s upcoming wedding? I’d chat right back. The one who was withdrawn and sad, healing from a miscarriage and simply looking to start over? I’d speak softly and quietly show her to her preparation suite. Mikveh Guides ask themselves, “What can I do to make this experience as meaningful as possible?” “How can I say ‘yes’?” “Do I need to be present or do I need to get out of the way?” The answer is different for each situation.
Our tradition teaches, “There are seventy faces to the Torah.” (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15-16) These faces are a metaphor for the multiple interpretations of any verse and multiple identities represented within the text itself. And each one is valid. At Mayyim Hayyim, there are 144 faces to the mikveh. 144 Mikveh Guides who are not gatekeepers, but door openers. They are female, male, and transgender. They are people of color, Jews-by-choice, and Jews in interfaith marriages. They represent the full denominational spectrum. Their diversity mirrors the Jewish people.
144 ways of welcoming, 144 identities represented. 144 facets of the community on one side of the mirror, on the other, many more. All of them welcome.
Carrie Bornstein is the Executive Director of Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center. www.mayyimhayyim.org
For more than a century, American Jewry’s passionate effort to ensure that America was a welcoming country for immigrants was infused by powerful historical lessons. We were, of course, the quintessential immigrant people, fleeing from land to land, looking for those rare countries that would welcome and perhaps even protect us. Our effort was, as well, a reflection of biblical values. We take pride that the most oft-repeated command of our tradition is to treat the stranger as ourselves. But what of our own community and our synagogues? In 1978, Rabbi Alexander Schindler vigorously called on us to reach out to “all who enter,” to open our congregations to intermarried families, later to the LGBT community, then to Jews through paternal descent. And then he called for our synagogues to become “caring communities” serving the actual needs of their members. There followed a different kind of welcoming as synagogues opened their hearts, doors and resources to absorb the deluge of “boat people” from Southeast Asia; Soviet Jews, Sudanese refugees, Ethiopian Jews all followed. Along the way, there were efforts to make our synagogues more accessible to differently abled Jews whose physical and mental capabilities made integration into our schools, our services, our programs an often discomforting challenge. When Rev. Rick Warren addressed the URJ Biennial in 2007 describing the welcoming culture of the mega-church, he helped spur the changing approach of many of our congregations. As we move into this New Year, the process of welcoming deepens and expands. How do we open ourselves to the unaffiliated? To the poor? To younger spiritually questing Jews who are moving from institution to institution, experience to experience? How do we make real the hope of the differently abled to be fully integrated into our Jewish communal lives? In this New Year, may we so treat the stranger that there be no stranger in America’s synagogues.
Rabbi David Saperstein is the Director and Legal Counsel for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. www.rac.org
It’s when you’re all around a dinner table. / Sitting. / And talking and laughing. / When nobody has their phone on. / When dinner starts at 6:00 and continues until 2:00 because no one has anywhere else to be. / No bars to stop at or social appointments to fulfill. / When the entire community knows that no matter how funny the rumor or how juicy the grapes on the grapevine, gossip is not ‘cool.’ / It’s when you find that you really, truly, honest-to-God care about what the people around you have to say. / When conversations couple God and sex and nonsense and jokes that are only funny to us. / When I don’t feel afraid to screw up a joke. / Nor dumb when my ‘facts’ are… incorrect. / When silence isn’t awkward. / When I don’t care who I sit next to. / Or how my hair looks. / Or what time it is. / When I don’t feel compelled to check my phone or check my e-mail or check the score. / When time takes a backseat to space. A sacred space defined by comforts sculpted by living, breathing, actually human people who have somehow intertwined their self-interests and can all find happiness by just being together. / I am happy when I’m not constantly asking myself if I’m happy. / When it no longer matters that I left my laundry in. / Or that yesterday was the last day on the return policy. / Or that I’m so screwed, so unprepared, so ahhhhhhhhhh… if I don’t get my homework / bills / application done / paid / sent. / When silent smiles aren’t awkward. / When I can put my arm around you and not feel rejected if you don’t put your arm around me. / When my mind is free and I’m rowdy. Banging on tables. Dancing in circles. Not afraid to be off key. / Na. Na. Na. Na. Na. Na. Na. Na. / Ahhhhh. / Just breath. / And join us…
Andrew Lustig is a traveling, Jewish Spoken Word artist, performer, and teacher. email@example.com
In his book, Relational Judaism, Dr. Ron Wolfson describes the engagement strategy of Chabad as “radical hospitality.” He portrays Chabad rabbis as those who “build personal relationships, beginning with a nonjudgmental welcome.” While reading this insightful book, I asked myself, “How can radical hospitality be infused into synagogue buildings?” I have worked as a sacred space planner since 1970 and have learned that synagogues are unique in that they are specifically designed as places for liturgy, learning, and community building, whereas most other houses of prayer are set aside for worship only.
Hospitable temples and synagogues are barrier-free, making it easy for all persons with different needs to enter and exit. Bright and cheery entrances or lobbies are furnished with places to sit, welcoming desks, and/or monitors for providing information. Emissaries greet everyone including congregants and strangers. There are spacious gathering places not only for Shabbat lunch, but for other activities as well. More synagogues now have a café alongside the bookstore and gift shop. Rooms are designated to serve teens, child-care, and educational programs for all ages. In the sanctuary there is abundant natural light, energy efficient light systems, and excellent acoustics so everyone can see and hear without strain. The seating plan is comfortable, flexible, and arranged so all congregants can feel like participants during worship. The bema itself is barrier-free and non-hierarchical. Some newer synagogues even employ projected imagery to complement worship.
It is often said, “We shape our spaces and then they shape us.” Temples or shuls that practice radical hospitality are relational places. When designed with this goal in mind they can be agents of transformation and enablers of spiritual growth.
Richard S. Vosko, Ph.D., Hon. AIA is a sacred space planner working in Jewish and Christian traditions. www.rvosko.com
The final scene of the movie Love Actually is worth a quick look. The closing is particularly meaningful in parity with the opening of the more-interesting-than-average love story. We hear, as preamble, a voiceover explaining, “Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport.” In the sixty-second post-script the audience is treated to a moving montage of airport arrivals. Children gleefully bolt into the waiting arms of parents, parted lovers fold into one another, and separated friends or family reunite in tearful embraces. Director Richard Curtis stationed a camera crew at Heathrow and instructed them to film folks in the act of welcome and then to ask for permission to use the footage. We see a quickly expanding jigsaw of greeting to the soundtrack of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows What I’d Be Without You.”
Though some might disagree, this conclusion avoids cliché if only because the hugging, the I-missed-you mess of tears, and relieved smiles are, well, actual. And we have all been in that embrace. We have welcomed someone back into our lives with a shoulder-grabbing clutch or a face-holding gaze of, “Yes! Yes! You are here.”
Still, we minimize or forget the ways we pushed away those we cherish, how we have said, “No, I am not present right now.” We wince recounting the times we barricaded the portals to our own souls with or without intent. It is Elul; time to put out the welcome mat for the improved self by opening wide the doors of demonstrative and spoken affection to the dear ones we encounter every day. Stand at the gate of your own life with arms and hearts and spirits wide open. Affirm the tremendous privilege of being surrounded by caring others. Sing loudly your own song of gratitude to God for being what you are when you are with them.
Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson is the President of The Wexner Foundation based in Columbus, Ohio. www.wexnerfoundation.org
Read Lia Mandelbaum’s response to Rabbi Abrahamson’s Jewel HERE.
We welcome the companionship but wish the circumstances were different. Will we know the meit (the deceased) or recognize the body that was loaned to him for his journey on this earth? We were told his name and the name of his parents – not much more. We know even less about his neshama, his soul, the essence of his being. But it is our task to usher his soul onward, to help him continue on his journey.
Entering the tahara room, we ask forgiveness for anything that we may do that might be inappropriate. The tahara (purification) requires us to clean him and lovingly pour water over him. We dress him in white tachrichim (burial garments), raising him to a level of symbolic purity, and then place him in the aron (wooden casket). At the cemetery he will continue his journey back to the earth and forward toward eternal life, into the heavenly sphere where, perchance, he will meet the Divine. His neshama and the memory of him will live on long after his body has returned to the earth.
We all live along the continuum of life – some at the beginning, others in the middle, and yet others at the end. At each stage, we need to be greeted and welcomed. Those of us in the Chevra Kadisha (Holy Society) hear it said often that we cannot be repaid for this mitzvah. But we also know that we really are repaid in the knowledge that we have comforted the family, assisted the soul, connected with our team, and developed a greater respect for the gift of life.
We are repaid with the understanding that every soul is precious and every human being is unique. We are repaid with the ability to see the world with new eyes.
Rabbi Stuart Kelman and David Zinner are the creators of the Gamliel Institute dedicated to creating holy community in life and death. www.gamliel.org
My family’s story in Los Angeles begins humbly. One side of my family crossed an ocean to flee persecution in Poland and Russia. The other half crossed a border to escape war in Mexico. Both sides were looking for a better life and they were able to find it in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. As I start my term as the 42nd Mayor of Los Angeles, I keep in mind that I do so standing on their shoulders.
For so many, Los Angeles has been the last and best frontier. It is a place where difference and diversity are not castigated, but celebrated. It is a place where immigrants, idealists, and innovators find a horizon as wide open and limitless as a person’s will and imagination.
I think of the challenges my grandparents faced: coming to a land they didn’t know with a language they didn’t speak. But, along with their grit and determination to do better than their parents had done, they had the strength to look at themselves with introspection, see their flaws and make a plan for improvement.
They were also fortunate to come to a place that accepted, welcomed, and encouraged them to reach for more and find a community of people willing to march toward a common horizon. They made a promise to improve their lives as well as improve the lives of those around them.
As Mayor, my job is to keep their efforts alive: to create a better place, foster an open and welcoming city, and find the prosperity that lifts us all for generations to come.
Eric Garcetti is the first Jewish Mayor of Los Angeles. www.ericgarcetti.com
See Cantor Rosalie Boxt’s response to Eric Garcetti’s Jewel HERE.
You know that feeling: when you walk into an impossibly chic boutique or a country club as someone’s guest and people let you know, you don’t really belong. The insiders are polite; they will greet you and even help you navigate your way. But they don’t truly welcome you. You’re a guest, a visitor, not expected to become a member of the club.
For a long time, this is how the Jewish community has also treated the non-Jews in our midst. Not just those who come into our synagogues and JCC’s as one-time visitors, but those married to Jews or raising Jewish children, the seekers who step in our doors. They are guests and we are friendly. But we do not do enough to truly welcome them, to let them know they could belong.
Some of the most innocuous-seeming comments are the most distancing: “I can always pick out the Jews in a room,” my friend, who identifies as a Jew by culture, says proudly. “Funny. You don’t look Jewish,” is another favorite. Tribal markings, while fun sport for in-group bonding, become challenging barriers for entry. Judaism becomes an exclusive club that you are either born into or not. My Korean-born mother, who spent over 35 years in synagogue and helped raise a Jewish family, never converted. She felt that as a cultural Korean she could never become 100% Jewish.
What would it look like if we truly welcomed people in? At Central Synagogue, we started an institute for Exploring Judaism (EJ) because we wanted to make the invitation explicit. EJ welcomes all with a holistic approach to Jewish learning, ritual practice and community exploration. In three years we have had over 200 students in EJ and over 80 conversions completed or in process. For many, all it took was a sincere invitation and the possibility of true belonging.
Rabbi/Cantor Angela Warnick Buchdahl serves as the Senior Cantor of Central Synagogue in New York City. www.centralsynagogue.org
The Talmud: dense and legalistic, tales of rabbis, matrons, kings and folk, surprising, challenging, cryptic, dry, fascinating, multilayered, heavenly, earthly – This is the Talmud for me.
I especially love it when the Talmud, the very mouthpiece of the Jewish people, engages in critique of the Jewish people themselves. Thus, it informs us that Amalek – symbol of ultimate evil – came into being following Jewish rejection of a prospective convert:
And Lotan’s sister was Timna…Timna was a royal princess…Desiring to become a proselyte, she went to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she instead became a concubine to Eliphaz son of Esau, saying, ‘I’d rather be a servant to this people than mistress of another nation.’
From her, Amalek was descended who afflicted Israel. Why so? — Because they should not have repulsed her. (Sanhedrin 99b)
We have no idea why Abraham, Isaac and Jacob rebuffed Timna. Did she make them feel uncomfortable? In what way? In any event, the message is clear: it was our own fault that we ended up plagued by Amalek, our arch-nemesis. Evil begets evil.
So, alongside “blotting out the name of Amalek,” let us also blot out rejection due to insularity, snobbery, fear or hatred. Let’s try harder to embrace people with open arms, even those who cause us discomfort. Especially those.
As Bob Marley sings in “Corner Stone”:
‘Cause the things people refuse
Are the things they should choose…
Yael Unterman is a Jerusalem-based author and Bibliodrama facilitator. www.yaelunterman.com
Welcome to Heaven! / Did I really make it here? I didn’t think I was all that great. / Oh, you were fine. / Really? What about all those times in my car when I yelled at other drivers with language that would cause plants to die? / Everyone’s a maniac in their car. If we denied entry to everyone who had road rage, this place would be a ghost town. / It sort of is a ghost town when you think about it. / Haha yeah, you’re right! That’s hilarious! You’re funny…you should sign up for the open mic. / You have open mics. up here? / Yeah… every Tuesday…they’re pretty good too…music, comedy, poetry…and no-one reads those dark existential angsty poems as, well, the afterlife has been revealed and all. / Oh, sounds cool, yeah, those were the worst. Wait a minute…I’m Jewish; I thought we were waiting for the world to come…do we even believe in the Pearly Gates? / Well, not really. But since there is actually no “correct” religion, the Buddhists built these as kind of a gag. / The Buddhists built it?!? / Yeah, and God and Vishnu released a joint-Tweet proclaiming their awesomeness. They’ve got a heck of a sense of humor. / God and Vishnu…wait a minute…you have Twitter up here? / Yeah, but it’s not connected to the one in life…actually, there was a whole copyright thing. But then we realized the folks at Earth Twitter couldn’t prove that we existed so it blew over. By the way, you get an organic fruit basket delivery on Sunday mornings and everyone gets a Prius. / A Prius? Do I need to drive up here? Aren’t you worried about road-rage? / Nah, we don’t have any roads. / Well, why do I need the car then…ahh, never mind…So I guess I should just go on in? / Yup, head on in. Take a left at the statue of the Easter Bunny (Jesus put that up…HILARIOUS!) and you’ll get to the welcome center. / Okay…thanks for everything…I’m heading in. Oh cool; everyone’s naked!
Rick Lupert is the author of 15 poetry books and editor of A Poet’s Haggadah. He works as a songleader and graphic designer. www.poetrysuperhighway.com
Let’s be honest. The world doesn’t always welcome us. Sometimes, it’s up to us to find our own way to welcome.
I grew up in the heart of the Chicago ghetto during the Depression. Not the greatest welcome. Each block was a spawning ground for just about every gangster, black and white, in America.
But still I had choices. And I started to make some good ones. After all; there may have been gangsters living around me; but mostly, there were good people. One was my father. Every day, he would say to me, “Once a task has just begun, never leave ‘til it’s done. Be the labor great or small; do it well or not at all.” I started to listen.
There were also people on the street who taught me to take chances to make something of myself. I started to listen. When I became interested in music, I was told I could learn from every band that came through town. I started to listen.
I came to learn that the important thing is to get moving in a direction. You cannot wait until everything’s perfect. Four guys that sound half-bad only need to give twenty-five percent to be one hundred percent when they play together. Do the math. It works.
The message from all this is when we don’t get the welcome we feel we deserve, it’s important to not sit back and wait for it. It likely will never come. You’ve got to look for it in other ways and other places. Just keep looking until you find a door of welcoming that’s opening up. You may have to do some pushing to get it to open all the way. Then walk on through.
Quincy Jones is an American record producer, conductor, arranger, composer, television producer, and trumpeter. www.quincyjones.com
“The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.”
~ Emily Dickinson
An inviting tap on the empty chair next to me was enough. Jackie turned to her husband at their otherwise empty table, nodded yes, and got up to join us. At my request, the eight people at our auction table inched their chairs closer and our friends slid comfortably into place. Later I got an email from Jackie saying, “Thank you for welcoming us to your table. It made all the difference for our night.”
The week before, I witnessed a similar gesture at my daughter’s new dance class. Though Marley’s skill set made her more than ready for this troupe, and even though she had known many of these girls before, she was intimidated knowing the troupe had been dancing together for three years. Marley hung back saying, “I’ll just watch,” when one girl, usually shy and withdrawn, stepped out of the glob of girls.
“Come on Marley. You learn routines so fast.” That was it. Marley shot me a look, shrugged her shoulders, and found a space alongside the others.
This is the art of welcoming: being open as well as extending invitations. Welcoming brings ease – makes people feel wanted and accepted. It allows us to sanctify a moment, cherish a relationship, receive and embrace. I was intrigued when Morah Shoshy, my 1st grade Sunday school teacher, told us that shalom meant hello, good bye and peace. As a verb, it goes even further to suggest safety or completeness. We welcome to make whole. May you welcome the taste of the fruits of summer. Invite someone new to your next celebration. Open your heart big and wide to acknowledge all that is before you.
Raychel Kubby Adler is a writer, wellness and fitness coach, mom, and breast cancer previvor. www.choicepointwellness.com