Imagine, for a minute, that you’re throwing an open house for a children’s sports team. You’ve invited a lot of people. You don’t know them all. Yet, you’re the host. It’s a beautiful, sunny, warm day. You’ve set up your yard for a party. The lemonade and cookies are out, the welcome banner is flapping in the breeze.
As people drift up your sidewalk, you see they’re nervous or ill at ease. “Welcome!” you say, and your family smiles at them. “Come on in. Join us.” You offer them food and drink. Then, you ask guests gentle, kind questions. “How long has your kid been playing soccer with our team?” or “Where does your kid go to school?” “Have you met our dog?” and so on.
Before long, you’ve learned new things about these strangers. You’ve made a few connections. As other people join the party, you lead a parent, Gabriel, over to talk to Morley, who shares Gabriel’s interests in dog training or hockey. You help all these people to relate to one another. Then, they can begin friendships. Soon, they will be hosting the next encounter – for their new friends and acquaintances.
Many people are rusty at this kind of face-to-face socializing. In the social media age, we “friend” people online long before we meet in person. We’re more likely to chat online than we are to approach strangers in person. It’s a cultural shift that can make people feel more awkward and self-conscious when they actually get together in person.
If you’ve never moved from one community to another, you’ve got family and friends built in – people who likely knew you in kindergarten or as a teenager with acne. These are longtime friends. You don’t have to do any work to know them. Why bother meeting new people?
Because we’re obligated as Jews to be hospitable. It’s our obligation to make new connections with others! (Both Jews and non-Jews.)
I recently heard a great story about a Passover seder. A young Jewish woman from Indiana was studying and working in London, and alone for the holiday. She followed the Twitter feed of London-based CNN reporter James Masters. He tweeted and asked if anyone needed a seder to attend. Samantha Gross, an intern with the Evening Standard, responded. She thought he was offering to find her a spot somewhere at a community event. Instead, he and his wife picked her up and brought her home to a Pesach table with grandparents and the kind of family love and embrace that really moved her. (To tears, although she claimed it was the horseradish!)
A Winnipeg congregation, Shaarey Zedek, is sponsoring a special speaker next week named Dr. Ron Wolfson. I could claim that I’d read everything he’s written (not true). I could boast that my mom has taken classes with him (true) and that he’s spoken at my parents’ Virginia congregation (true). I could mention that he’s collaborated with Rabbi Larry Hoffman (true) who came to speak at Winnipeg’s Temple Shalom recently (true), and whose daughter went to summer camp with me long ago (true). However, none of that background or Jewish geography matters.
What matters is that Dr. Wolfson is coming to Canada to speak – and it’s well worth reading his books or finding a way to hear him in person. Why?
What he teaches is a profoundly Jewish message. It’s about building relationships and connections that might be new, and take work. For many Jews, going to shul is like going home – most of the people there are your family and friends, you’ve known them forever. It takes no work to relate to them. However, our society is transient. There are a lot of newcomers at every congregation. We need to do both the right thing and the Jewish thing, and practise “audacious hospitality.”
What’s that? Well, in Genesis 18:1-18, there’s a story that is uniquely ours. Abraham and Sarah are in their tent when three strangers walk by. Abraham rushes out to them, welcomes them in and, with Sarah, he helps them wash and offers them food and hospitality. Abraham knows what it is to be a traveler and to be hot, tired and hungry. He knows that he should reach out, it’s the right thing to do.
The strangers (angels) bring messages to them. One is that even though they’re old, Sarah will have a child and Abraham will become the patriarch to a great and populous nation.
The message is clear. It’s incumbent upon us to be like Abraham and Sarah, and like Masters’ family, too. We need to welcome others, build real relationships with them, and offer them our (Jewish) hospitality. This may make all the difference. Will we be Abraham’s “great … nation” or lose Judaism to assimilation?
Ten years ago, I was invited to participate in an interfaith “green” religious service. The interim Anglican priest who ran the service bumped into me at the farmers market a few days later. I thanked her for the opportunity, and invited her to my Shabbat table. That was her very first dinner invitation in Bowling Green, Ky., and the start of many more happy hours at my table and hers. We are still good friends. She told me that it figured a Jewish person would be first to “invite her in,” as Abraham and Sarah did.
This pastor (and friend) both reminded me and taught me more about my obligation to be hospitable as a Jew. Abraham knew how to do this. It’s high time we did, too.
Joanne Seiff, a regular columnist for Winnipeg’s Jewish Post and News, is the author of a new book, From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016. This collection of essays is now available for digital download, or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her on joanneseiff.blogspot.com.