When Good Synagogues Go Bad

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I recently attended a Jewish ritual celebration, and happened to be seated with a lovely young couple. They had just gotten married, and were moving to a new city to begin their lives together. Having a personal connection to this city, I was excited to hear about their plans. When I learned that they were moving just down the street from a synagogue that I had an old connection to and was quite fond of, I almost burst out of my seat, asking them if they knew how close they were to this synagogue. They said that they had indeed heard about the synagogue, and had actually called a few weeks before in search of information. However, the wife’s next words came as a surprise: “I called and told them that we were moving to the area, and wanted to find out about programs for young adults. The first thing the woman on the other line did was start telling me about the preschool! She didn’t stop! We don’t have kids yet. I was quite turned off.”

The couple felt that the person on the phone continued to be inappropriate, making many assumptions of the couple and not taking the time to find out who they were or listen to what they were asking for. I found myself trying to convince them that it was still a wonderful synagogue, despite this initial encounter, and that whoever answered the telephone was not representative of the institution itself. And how unfortunate that was! How could a synagogue as great as this one give off this kind of impression?

Mentioning this story to another friend, she told me of a similar experience that she had with a different congregation…

She was a student in the local area, spending her first Passover away from home. Attempting to find kosher-for-Passover food, she called up a large synagogue asking, “I need to get kosher-for-Passover food, but I don’t have a car. Can you please recommend what I should do?”
The person answering the phone said, very bluntly, “there’s no way that you can get it without a car,” the finality of her words unmistakable.
My friend persisted. “Well that’s why I called, to try to figure out what to do for Passover.”
The secretary responded, “Just like I said, there’s nothing you can do.”
“Well, what about a Seder? Do you have a Seder I can come to?”
“Our Seder has been cancelled.”
“Can you tell me where else I can go?”
And that was it. Left flustered and frustrated, my friend did not know what to do.

Both the couple and my friend have a strong history of Jewish engagement, so these experiences would not likely turn them off from Judaism, but one can only imagine how this could prevent someone who was nervously beginning their Jewish exploration from going much further. If they are responded to like the stories above, they can easily come away with the message that there is not a place for them in the Jewish community.

Often, the people answering the phone serve as the gatekeepers of Jewish institutions; the ambassadors to the outside world. In our work with synagogues and other Jewish organizations, we stress the importance of being sensitive and welcoming at all points of entry, including that initial telephone conversation. We realize the potential of seemingly minor interactions to have a major impact on a newcomer’s feelings about the Jewish community as a whole, and thus we support working with our institutions to make sure that when people do take that step, they are always listened to and welcomed, so that the Jewish community as a whole does not risk losing these potential newcomers.

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