(Not) Welcoming the Stranger

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(Update: Sept. 22, 2015) In summer 2015, we unexpectedly found the congregation we’d been looking for. The same congregation I found so unfriendly in the second half of this post. I have no explanation for my impressions that night. The welcome we’ve received has been extraordinary. The moral of the story? When a rabbi asks if she can introduce you to members of the congregation, say yes…

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When we originally said we were going to wait until after the High Holy Days to shul shop (i.e. search for a new synagogue), we didn’t expect that we’d feel as comfortable as we now do, almost a year after leaving the synagogue where I began my Jewish journey in 2010. Still, there’s nothing wrong with trying to find the right fit.

After Yok Kippur, we set our sights on mainline Reform synagogues across the region, and decided to make our shul shopping more than an every-few-weeks endeavor. It was nice sitting among a congregation and sharing familiar communal song and prayer during the weeklong, post-Yom Kippur Sukkot holiday. Faces weren’t familiar, but the norms of the service were very much so. During the service, the rabbi reminded the congregation of the importance of making newcomers feel welcome. Judging by the look of the crowd, I was pretty sure we were the lone objects of that reminder.

As services ended, the rabbi told congregants that the oneg (post-service reception) would take place in the sukkah (the outdoor booth at the heart of the holiday.) We didn’t know where it was. But after the rabbi’s welcoming words, we were sure we wouldn’t have any trouble finding it. Surely, someone would show us.

There’s another unfortunately not uncommon synagogue norm worth noting. The one where no one bothers to say hello to you unless they already know you. Our old synagogue was desperate for members, so there was always some sort of a greeting there for new faces. We stood in the lobby for five minutes after services while members of the shul we were visiting clearly took pains to avoid eye contact, rush by us to their coats or their familiar-faced friends, and with them on out to the sukkah.

We were stunned. It was so obvious how unwelcoming the congregation was to newcomers, we started laughing, right there in the lobby. Those few minutes–especially after the rabbi’s words–spoke volumes to us about that synagogue, and about the Reform community in the Chicago area in general. It’s an old joke in membership circles–how do you win over new members when your existing members are unfriendly to new prospects?

The punch line is usually two newcomers walking silently back to their car and driving back home, having a conversation about how renewed they feel about their choice to not be members of any synagogue right now. That’s just what Ryan and I did. The next day I wrote the rabbi and told them about our experience. The response I got? We were there on an off night with an older crowd that is often unfriendly. We were invited back for a sukkah party at the rabbi’s house, but we declined.

As with some first impressions, once was enough.

A few weeks later for the hell of it and because I’m a glutton for punishment, I set off without Ryan (who had had enough by this point) for a different shul. This time, I did the wallflower thing in a tightly packed, wine-laden reception area before the service instead of afterwards in a quickly dwindling lobby. Cheek by jowl with my people, folks had to go even further out of their way to not say hello. Their technique was impressive, especially for those having full-on, rip-roaring conversations with people so close to me that I could smell the tipply breath of the conversants.

Eventually, the rabbi came over and asked if she could introduce me to a few people. But that’s not the way it’s supposed to work. Your congregation either welcomes the stranger or they don’t. And if they don’t, there’s no point trying to welcome yourself. (A lesson it took me four years to learn at Emanuel.)

As the year ended, we increasingly wondered whether it would be better just to wait until our move to Los Angeles–a city with a far larger, more vibrant Jewish community–to seek a new congregation. And whether when the time came, we’d care to bother. Ryan would still like to complete his conversion, and I’d eventually like us to be married in a Jewish ceremony. But in 2015, neither of those things require a synagogue.

Not anymore.

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