Breaking the Cycle of Unwelcome in Jewish Life
For many of us going to a new synagogue or Jewish environment is tough. We spend time beforehand wondering if we will know anyone, will we feel comfortable, or something as simple as will anyone say hello to me.
For me, this last piece has always been something I’ve spent my time thinking about. When my sister and I walk into any Jewish setting we can get looked at differently and asked strange questions. This is because I am the white biological child of two white parents, and my sister is biracial adopted child of the same two white parents. We have always encountered the issue of welcoming and inclusion, even from an early age, and as we grew up we experienced the nuances and subtle unwelcoming that can happen, intentionally and unintentionally within the Jewish community. However, because of our parents we know who we are and that being a Jew is important to us. I have spent a large part of my adult life trying to find my own Jewish self and find what speaks to me about my faith. In this process I somehow always go back to the idea of community, welcoming and inclusion, that sense of belonging that we are all looking for.
About seven years ago I married my husband and in doing so welcomed a new person’s traditions, beliefs and feelings into my life and that of my family and my husband did the same. We struggled for a while and at times still do on how to make all sides of our identities and families feel welcomed in our home and our lives and to honor all the traditions that are important to us as individuals and as a family. A few years ago we were able to take one of my family’s oldest traditions and include part of my husband’s family in it. It was really special to be able to share Thanksgiving with my old family and my new family. It was a chance to do something new and create a welcoming and sweet holiday for all. It was and still is the beginning of our journey to make our family one and at times it’s not simple but we continue to look at the joy it bring us and others when we do it well.
Family is a funny thing sometimes. Many people see family as those people you are bound to by blood, but that has never been the case in my family. My grandmother welcomed everyone and made everyone into family without ever sharing a drop of blood with them, and my parents lived this idea with me and my sister. I’ve learned recently that I am much like my grandmother in the sense that my family goes far beyond those I am related to. For me family was and is about unconditional love, creating a community and a welcoming spirit. This is a spirit that my husband and I used to build our home together.
About two years ago my husband and I joined a small young couple’s Modern Orthodox minyan (prayer group) where we knew one couple but no one else. We have spent much of the last two years trying to build a community for ourselves since we never felt that the minyan had a good way of welcoming people. In the process we had the opportunity to re-connect with an old friend from college and her husband who we didn’t know lived in our neighborhood. They invited us for Shabbat dinner in their home and we were thrilled. After making Kiddush and the ritual washing of our hands we joined them at the table for Hamotzi. Instead of showering the challah with salt (symbolizing a part of the sacrifice in the temple) they dipped each piece in honey. They shared with us that in their home it was a custom to welcome new guests with sweetness, rather than salt. They wanted anyone who comes into their home to feel welcomed and remember them and their home with sweetness.
My husband and I loved this idea. We fell in love with in fact and decided to incorporate it into out home and our family customs. For me it felt like something we should have always been doing, and I had that moment of “why didn’t I think of that?” From that moment on we have always welcomed new guests on Shabbat and holidays with honey. For me it was a way to show others something we valued. Using honey gave us the chance to tell them that they were important and how happy we were to have them. It’s a small way for us to make a large, possibly unwelcoming community and make it smaller, more personal and more home like.
Welcoming can be hard. I know for myself I find it hard to introduce myself to strangers but to make a stranger feel at home has become a mitzvah I take very seriously. And because of this I work on my anxiety about talking to new people but in truth I depend on my husband to introduce me to people and then I jump at the chance to welcome them into our home with good food, good wine and lots of joy and honey. This is the area of welcoming I can do and love the most. This small custom of using honey at hamotzi is our way of being intentionally welcoming and when we look down at the multiple strand loaf of bread (challah) we are reminded that it takes many individual strands to make a whole. And each individual should be honored for who they are and what they bring to the whole to make it greater than it was without them.
We want to always remember how important guests are and how any new guest can become family if we allow them to. If we always try to remember that initial feeling of walking into a new place and are conscious of it, then we may be able to step out of ourselves and create the welcoming community that we want to have for ourselves, our families and all those people who have not yet become part of our families.