We’ve all heard stories of people who were turned off from Judaism by negative experiences with a synagogue, a rabbi, etc. “He wouldn’t even meet with us to talk about our marriage because my fiancé hadn’t converted yet,” or “They wouldn’t let me into High Holy Day services because I forgot my ticket,” or, “They were rude to me when my baby cried during the service.”
We also know that, generally, one bad experience isn’t enough to drive a person away from Judaism or synagogue life. These stories are often more about “the straw that broke the camel’s back” than they are about one unforgiveable sin on the part of the congregation or clergy.
Yet for many of us, the opposite is true. Many good things happen to us over the course of our synagogue life, and we hardly even seem to notice it. The people are generally friendly, the sermons are often meaningful, the cantor’s voice is inspiring. Sometimes it’s hard to notice how many things are going right, day in and day out.
Sometimes, something happens that is right, and it stands out. This is one such story.
At our synagogue, we have a minhag (custom) on the first Friday night of each month. Toward the end of the service, before we break for the monthly congregational dinner, the clergy asks everyone who is having a birthday that month to come forward for a group blessing. It may not sound like a big deal, but it means a lot to some people. There have been a couple of occasions when the clergy have forgotten to give the monthly birthday blessing, and boy, do they hear about it when that happens!
Last Friday night, after the birthday blessing and the end of the service, I was opening the sanctuary doors so the congregants could walk over to the dinner. As I was doing so, a man came up to me and said, “Is the service over already?” For some reason, he had gotten the time mixed up.
I told him yes, it was, and he asked whether there would be a second service. I told him no, we only have a second service on the third Friday of the month. He asked, “Did they do the birthday blessing?” I said they did, about five minutes ago.
He looked so downcast that I asked, “Is it your birthday this month? Did you come for the blessing?” He said he had, so I suggested, “Why don’t I take you to the rabbi, to see if something can be done?” He said okay, and he followed me inside.
Now, at this point I didn’t know what the rabbi would do. For one thing, that night we had on duty the rabbi who has been filling in for the last couple of months while our senior rabbi is on sabbatical, so I don’t know him very well. Second, rabbis are, after all, human beings, so they are hard to predict in any case.
But the rabbi sure seems like a nice guy, so I brought the distraught congregant up to the rabbi, introduced them, and said, “He just missed the birthday blessing.”
The congregant asked, “Do you think you could give me a blessing anyway?”
The rabbi answered, “Of course.”
So the rabbi blessed the congregant, and the look on the congregant's face was so happy, I was deeply touched. I thought, “This is an example of the clergy and the synagogue getting it right. This story deserves to be told.”
May there be many more such stories to tell.