I’ve been attending water aerobics at the JCC for about two months now. In addition to finding a new form of exercise that I enjoy, I’ve met a lot of nice people who I would not otherwise have gotten to know. When I visited with one new friend after our workout, she told me about how she moved here only a year and a half ago from New York, after becoming a widow, knowing no one but her daughter and grandchildren. She joined a local synagogue to meet people and make friends, but no one talked to her, and she felt very much excluded and unwelcome.
When recounting this story to my family at dinner that evening, all of us felt bad for my new friend and were surprised that she would have such a negative experience when the virtue of Hachnasat Orchim (welcoming strangers or offering hospitality) is such a strong tenet of the foundation of Judaism. In religious school our children are taught at a very young age to be inclusive of everyone and welcoming to new people. Because we, as Jews, were outsiders for so long, confined up to the mid 1800’s in ghettos and sections of cities and towns enclosed by walls and guarded by gatekeepers, our people should understand what it feels like to be excluded and should be more cognizant of the importance of not letting others feel that way. In fact, the Torah itself reinforces this concept and reminds the Jewish people to “welcome the stranger as if you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Being welcoming is not necessarily intuitive and is often not the easiest course of action. People are so busy with their professional lives, schools, activities and all of the many things that occupy our time, that when we go someplace like to synagogue, looking around for new people and talking to them, welcoming them, including them, are not always at the forefront of our thoughts. Often we rush into the synagogue just as the service is starting, look around to see which of our friends are there, quickly wave or blow a kiss and then enjoy the service. Afterwards, we enjoy catching up with our friends and saying hello to everyone we know, but we don’t always take the extra time to look around and see if there is someone new who we don’t yet know — on the outside looking in.
At the conclusion of the Friday night Shabbat service at our temple, we link arms and sway while singing “Oseh Shalom,” and then we hold our children (or spouses or parents) close while the rabbi and cantor do a blessing. Although our rabbi says something along the lines of “if you notice someone here alone, take him or her into your hearts and your families for now,” how many of us actively look around us to take note of whether there happens to be someone there all alone? That person may not jump up and down and say “I’m alone, I’m alone, can I join you?!” We need to be aware of who is there and be super vigilant to notice those who are there alone, so that we can welcome them into our fold and include them at this spiritual and touching time of the service when no one should have to be alone.
In the Bible, Abraham becomes the primary role model for welcoming strangers. Abraham and Sarah lived in a world that was not very welcoming. As the story goes, Abraham was sitting at the door of his tent when the three angels approached, and he was immediately able to welcome them. In fact, Abraham had such a strong desire to offer hospitality to strangers that rumor has it that he would pitch a tent at a crossroads and raise up its flaps on all sides so that he could see travelers approaching any time from any direction. Commentators have explained that Abraham was sitting at the door of his tent, so that he could see if any strangers were approaching, so that he could welcome them as soon as possible. We should model this behavior of Abraham and sit “at the door” of our synagogue (figuratively, not necessarily literally) and be on the lookout for anyone new, so that we can welcome them, have a conversation, make sure they have someone with whom to link arms and sway and someone to visit with at the Oneg Shabbat. We can even perform a greater mitzvah and take this one step further by getting in touch with new people later and invite them to come to temple with us one evening or have a meal at our home.
Of all people, we, as Jews, should know what it feels like to be a stranger, to be ostracized and to be excluded. Hopefully, our children are all learning not to intentionally exclude anyone. But intentional exclusion is not the only thing that can be hurtful and make a person feel sad or lonely. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we fail to include someone just because we don’t realize that he or she is new or on the fringes. As we approach the summer season, which is a common time for new people to visit synagogues, we should be mindful of this and make it our mission and goal to perform the mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim – to reach out and welcome a stranger into our home, our synagogue, our midst. Taking this one step further, it doesn’t necessarily have to be welcoming strangers in Jewish venues. Once this virtue becomes second nature, it should become a part of our everyday lives, and we should be open, accepting and welcoming of new people and new ideas in every aspect of our lives. If we make this concerted effort as individuals and within our families and our congregations, then this virtue may become more pervasive on a societal level.