What does it mean to be a “welcoming” congregation?
Synagogue leaders spend much time finding many different answers to this question. We want everyone who comes through the doors of our synagogues to feel like we do. Shabbat Worship should be spiritual and uplifting. It should feel like we are with family. Of course, like everything, the concept of welcoming the stranger is rooted in Torah. In Vayera (GENESIS 18:1-22:24), Abraham’s hospitality to three angels led to Isaac’s birth a year later.
If Abraham hadn’t have been such a hospitable guy, would Jewish history be as we know it?
I had an experience a few years ago that reminded me of the importance of welcoming. I had to travel to another city on the Shabbat that was the Yahrzeit of my dad’s death. A few weeks before, I had contacted a rabbi I knew and told him I would be coming to Shabbat morning services. He told me there was a weekly alternative minyan I would enjoy that was led by congregants.
I arrived at the start of services. Several people wished me Shabbat Shalom. When the Torah service began and the service leader asked for someone to be Hagba, after a very long silent pause, I volunteered. It was a very spiritual and musical service and everyone there certainly knew each other.
When the service concluded, I wished the people sitting near me Shabbat Shalom and went on my way. What struck me most was that no one asked me my name or even why I was praying with them that Shabbat.
I was only there for that one Shabbat. What would someone think who lived in the area and was interested in becoming part of a sacred community?
I have written and spoken before about the importance of connection. I call it the “three Cs”. If people feel a strong connection to the synagogue, it will be easier in terms of collections of dues/annual commitments, and contributions. And all of this leads to building a stronger community.
In just eight weeks, the High Holy Days will be upon us. This is a tremendous opportunity for synagogues. You know that for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur attendance will be to the max. People are thinking about synagogue and looking for community.
This is the time to welcome everyone to their second home.
You can certainly take advantage of weekly email, Facebook and Twitter in the weeks leading up to the holidays to express various welcome messages.
On the High Holy Days themselves, welcoming can present some challenges as the numbers of people are so much greater than on Shabbat. Ushers assigned to the entranceways should not only be asked to check for tickets. They should be trained how to greet people and engage them in a personal way. Yes, wishing people a “Happy New Year”, “Shanna Tova”, or “have an easy fast” is great. But try and personalize the interaction even more: “My name is David. Welcome home. Did you have a good summer? Happy New Year”.
And ask the people arriving their names. The more personal the interaction for people – whether it be their first time or 30th – the better!
My friend Rabbi Melissa Zalkin Stollman told me a story about her experiences on the High Holy Days at Larchmont Temple when she was a rabbinical student. Before the morning worship began on Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman asked all of the clergy – including Melissa – to join him in the lobby to greet everyone.
Let’s take this idea one step further. For the 30 minutes before the start of services, clergy and synagogue officers should stand in a central location by an entranceway to the sanctuary and greet everyone. This, too, will add to the spirit of welcoming. I know that this may seem to some like a lot to ask of clergy who have much on their minds in terms of the details of the worship experience. I would offer that such personal contact with clergy and synagogue leaders will help in people feeling welcome and also help congregants build a stronger connection to the synagogue community. And people will be more open to participate in the High Holy Worship experience.
Being a “Welcoming” congregation at the High Holy Days will bode well for the many Shabbats that follow.
Here are some resources on Welcoming for the High Holy Days: