Ask the Expert: Welcoming Guests
How can I welcome without alienating?
Question: I often host Shabbat meals, and I like to invite some of my non-observant friends.
Recently, one of them said she feels uncomfortable coming because she's not observant and feels out of place. What are some things I can do to make sure I'm not alienating her, but don't require that I give up any of the necessary parts of the meal (kiddush, motzi, etc.)?
Answer: Way to be a good host, Natalie! It's great that you have people over for Shabbat meals, and it's especially nice to see you reaching out to make sure that all of your guests feel comfortable. That’s the sign of a true hostess with the mostest.
To help answer this question, I consulted with Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of the Jewish Outreach Institute. (JOI's mission is to reach out to unaffiliated and intermarried families, and to help the organized Jewish community better welcome them.) Rabbi Olitzky said, "The key is to try to place everyone on the same level by creating a supportive environment." If your guest feels like she doesn't know what's going on, and everyone else does, then it makes sense that she feels isolated and/or embarrassed. How to counteract this? There are two steps.
First, according to Rabbi Olitzky, "You will want to set the behavioral expectations (what is sometimes called scripts) for people whom you are inviting. In other words, in your invitation, let them know what to expect and how to dress, act, etc. in a supportive way." One way to do this is to say, "Since everyone has their own way of observing Shabbat, I just wanted you to know how I do it, why I do it that way, and what you might expect when you come to my home." This takes a lot of the strangeness out of the ritual.
At the meal itself, you should continue giving cues as to what is happening. One good option is to have simple written explanations of all rituals--even short ones like hamotzi-- ready on the table. For those who are very familiar with the rituals, you can include lesser known facts or ritual twists that might be unique to what you do. That way, everyone is gaining something by reading the explanations.
You can also avoid making your friend feel alienated by making sure she's not the only one at the table who doesn't come from an observant background. And be sure to steer conversation away from insider-y topics, like who is doing what at shul, and who wore what on a recent Jewish holiday.
I also want to encourage you to ask your friend if there was anything in particular that made her feel unwelcome or anxious in the past. There maybe small things that she picked up on that you can easily change or avoid.
Kudos again for making the effort to ensure that all of your guests feel comfortable at your table.
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