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Jewish Journal

Say Hello Before They Say Goodbye

by Alan Fisher

September 11, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Jews for Jesus, Jews attending churches, low synagogue membership, astronomical rates of intermarriage -- as complex as these issues are, there is at least one remarkably simple and inexpensive solution to encouraging Jewish participation. It's called a warm greeting.

A friendly smile, a warm greeting, an invitation to lunch. If you think that is silly and simplistic, think again. As part of their course work, I require my students to interview two Jews. Because many of them -- all non-Jews, primarily from the South Bay -- lead very narrow lives, they do not know how to find Jews and turn to familiar institutions, one of which is church. Lo and behold -- as the most recent National Jewish Population Survey has finally shown -- they find Jews there.

Over the years, of the 40 or so of these interviewees, about three-quarters said they were drawn to the church because of the support of their non-Jewish spouse and the friendliness of the Christian congregation. They felt welcomed.

Compare that with my experiences and those of friends. I cannot begin to enumerate all the Shabbat morning (and Friday night) services I have attended where not one single person greeted me. The list includes at least 16 of the major synagogues in Los Angeles County -- of all streams. Nor is it just Los Angeles. I received the same reception in the largest Conservative synagogues in Manhattan, Queens, San Diego, Vancouver, Miami, Cleveland and Toronto, as well as the largest synagogues (Orthodox) in Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Istanbul. And in Israel, in Hebrew-speaking congregations -- forget it. One is invisible until one attends regularly for six months.

Nor is it just synagogue life. Over the past three years I attended two lectures at the Yiddish Culture Club. In each, I was one of two or three people under 65 years of age. Would it not seem natural that they would greet me warmly? Think again.

Not a word. (The lectures, in Yiddish, were first-rate, so I would go again.)

In the spirit of ecumenicism, I had the same experience at St. Stephen's Serbian Orthodox Church last month. There were only about 25 people who attended the Vespers (evening) service and not a single one came up to greet me.

Not all synagogues (or churches) are so aloof. I have been approached and invited out at Beth Jacob, Aish HaTorah and some, but not all, Chabad synagogues. At the Movable Minyan, members are required to speak to guests. When I bring students to a Shabbat service, I bring them to Mishkon Tephilo, in part because the people tend to be friendly, a trait not lost on the students. All the students who report on their experiences have a positive predisposition and they invariably mention -- indeed emphasize -- the friendliness of the congregants.

It's almost too simple. Among both Jews and Christians, which movements are growing the fastest? Those that engage in outreach and that offer the strongest sense of community -- those that are the most welcoming. Indeed, one of the charges against cults is that they are too friendly. Few synagogues have to worry about that charge.

A few years ago, synagogue leaders created a commission, Synagogue 2000, to devise new guidelines that would make stagnant synagogues more alive. Among the suggestions was making synagogues more friendly. But when, in July 2001, I went to services on a Shabbat morning to the synagogue of a Synagogue 2000 leader, there were 23 people, not a single one of whom greeted me. Maybe that's why there were only 23 people.

It is not as though we need to seek out the secrets of evangelical Christian churches.

Hospitality goes back to the first Jew, Abraham, who even in extreme discomfort, welcomed the wayfarers to his home. One of the common themes throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, especially for the patriarchs and matriarchs, is that of hospitality. The Hebrew, hachnasat orchim, literally means "causing guests to enter [one's home]."

Nor did this virtue escape the sages. We say a special blessing for guests on Sukkot. We start the seder with an invitation to all who are hungry to join us at the table, an Aramaic expression taken directly from Rabbi Huna who, according to legend, went outside and publicly invited all the needy (koll ditzrich yatay v'lechol) to join him at every meal (Taanit 20b). Rabbi Yochanan avers that hospitality is equal to prayer; Rabbi Dimi disagrees, stating that hospitality is greater (Shabbat 127a-b). In a passage included in the morning service of traditional prayer books, the rabbis included hospitality as one of the major mitzvot.

Will a smile, friendly greeting and an invitation to lunch solve all synagogue problems? Hardly. But it's a better start than what we are doing now. If you don't believe me, then I can recommend lots of churches where Jewish-born men and women now belong. Ask them.

Alan Fisher is a political science professor at California State University Dominguez Hills.

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