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.
When we work with Jewish communities throughout North America to help them expand their reach and embrace the principles of Big Tent Judaism, we begin by helping them to understand how they may unintentionally push people away from Jewish engagement. In order to create Jewish communities that are ready to welcome those who are not connecting to Jewish life, we must start by laying a strong foundation of inclusion. In order to do this, it is essential that gatekeepers (those individuals who serve as an organization’s first point of contact, such as receptionists, and even maintenance staff) become sensitized to the vulnerabilities and potential background of a potential newcomer to Jewish life. This is why we travel the continent training gatekeepers to notice each interaction (whether a telephone call, email, or in-person conversation) and maximize its potential for connecting one human being to Jewish life.
When we gathered 150 Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders in Hartford, CT last month, workshop participants left better equipped to transform what might seem like a simple telephone inquiry into the beginnings a relationship. They are now able to provide a warm and welcoming introduction, refer inquiries to their colleagues if they do not know the answer, make sure that potential newcomers do not feel judged for lack of membership or affiliation, ask unobtrusive questions so they can learn about the needs of those seeking information, and make them feel wanted, noticed, and served. It is with this new sensitivity that we hope more potential newcomers to Jewish life will be embraced in this New Year, and we look forward to helping your community next!