Elul 5: Come In by Angela Buchdahl

You know that feeling: when you walk into an impossibly chic boutique or a country club as someone’s guest and people let you know, you don’t really belong. The insiders are polite; they will greet you and even help you navigate your way. But they don’t truly welcome you. You’re a guest, a visitor, not expected to become a member of the club.

For a long time, this is how the Jewish community has also treated the non-Jews in our midst. Not just those who come into our synagogues and JCC’s as one-time visitors, but those married to Jews or raising Jewish children, the seekers who step in our doors. They are guests and we are friendly. But we do not do enough to truly welcome them, to let them know they could belong.

Some of the most innocuous-seeming comments are the most distancing: “I can always pick out the Jews in a room,” my friend, who identifies as a Jew by culture, says proudly. “Funny. You don’t look Jewish,” is another favorite. Tribal markings, while fun sport for in-group bonding, become challenging barriers for entry. Judaism becomes an exclusive club that you are either born into or not. My Korean-born mother, who spent over 35 years in synagogue and helped raise a Jewish family, never converted. She felt that as a cultural Korean she could never become 100% Jewish.

What would it look like if we truly welcomed people in? At Central Synagogue, we started an institute for Exploring Judaism (EJ) because we wanted to make the invitation explicit. EJ welcomes all with a holistic approach to Jewish learning, ritual practice and community exploration. In three years we have had over 200 students in EJ and over 80 conversions completed or in process. For many, all it took was a sincere invitation and the possibility of true belonging.

Rabbi/Cantor Angela Warnick Buchdahl serves as the Senior Cantor of Central Synagogue in New York City. www.centralsynagogue.org

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