Over the summer, I went to a new city to visit some friends for the weekend. I thought I’d check out a local synagogue for Shabbat services, so I made the call…
Me: Hello! I’m calling to find out about services this evening.
Receptionist: They are at 6:00.
Me: Thanks, I actually saw the time on your website… I was calling to find out what they are like?
Receptionist: Oh, I really couldn’t tell you. I’ve never been to them.
Me: Do you know if they are musical? Mumbly? Participatory?
Receptionist: I really don’t know. By the way, are you a member?
Me: Um, no, I’m coming for the first time.
I’ll spare you the rest of the conversation because it didn’t get better. Within the span of a few moments, I was not helped, not guided, certainly not welcomed, and on top of that, made to feel like an outsider because I was not a member. Had I been a first-timer (or a first in a long-timer) gathering the courage to approach organized Jewish communal life, I might have felt turned off not only to this particular congregation, but from other opportunities to connect Jewishly as well.
Unfortunately, one negative encounter with one Jewish community has the potential to affect a person for a very long time, and severely impact their perception of the Jewish community as a whole. As Jewish communal professionals, we are constantly reminded of this as we engage in conversation with those who are disconnected from Jewish life. That is why here at JOI, we dedicate a significant portion of our time to helping to prevent such negative interactions, and protect the experience of potential newcomers to Jewish life. We believe that the organized Jewish community must reach out to connect those on the periphery of Jewish life in innovative ways (another core piece of our work), but some preliminary steps must take place first.