I like to take advantage of being out of town over Shabbat to check out area synagogues. Since we spend so much time helping synagogues and other communal institutions to become more welcoming, I am sensitive to the various “welcoming behaviors” of the institutions I visit and am able to get a sense of how they welcome strangers or newcomers.
Last Friday evening, I attended a moderate-size urban synagogue. It is well-known for its lively Friday night singing (called Carlebach-style, in deference to the melodies which were shaped by the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.) While the service demanded a high level of literacy to fully engage, there were some periods of niggunim (wordless chants) that could heighten the prayer experience without having to know any Hebrew. I said hello to a few people whom I recognized, though no one came to me to say hello. But an announcement the rabbi made at the conclusion of the prayer service was what for me ultimately made for a welcoming experience: “If you have an extra seat at your Shabbat dinner table, please see me after services. And if you would like a place to go for Shabbat dinner, please see me after services.”
On Saturday morning, I attended a large synagogue, also well-known for its participatory singing. No one approached me until the rabbi leading the service (whom I didn’t know) formally welcomed me. There was no announcement at the end of the service. Perhaps there were private invitations. I am not sure.
I am not saying one synagogue or one movement is better than another. I am simply sharing my particular experience; a different person might have experienced it otherwise. For example, is an announcement about a Shabbat dinner invitation enough to make all people feel welcome? Perhaps only the ones that are inside that community understand the culture code and are willing to step forward to ask for an invitation. How can we create a culture of welcoming at our various institutions? Maybe it isn’t about programs and committees but about starting from something much more simple—the value of welcoming the stranger.