Judaism is the great religion of welcome. The root of our faith is modeled on the actions of our forefathers and foremothers who set the groundwork for the foundational nature of Jewish life. Abraham, the archetype for all future Jewish generations, was fundamentally a person of chesed, kindness. One of the enduring images we have of Abraham is the picture of his tent open from all sides ushering and welcoming in visitors even when he was physically not well. Abraham though imparted to us not only the value of welcoming but instructed us on how to implement it.
The Torah shares with us the lengths to which Abraham went to make his visitors feel at home and indeed to transform the relationship of host-visitor into one of equal partnership and respect. Genesis 18:1-8 records Abraham insisting that his three unexpected visitors stay for a while and the subsequent rush that he and his household underwent to prepare an elaborate meal for them. It was Abraham’s intent to make his home, which was the model for the way of life he was introducing to the world, maximally inclusive and welcoming.
To be inclusive does not mean to forsake one’s values or religious principles. To be inclusive means to welcome all people without reservation as colleagues, fellow community members, friends, and family. It is to internalize the truth that all people are created by God and endowed with inestimable value and worth and deserving of the utmost respect and then externalize that truth in the way we act and organize ourselves and our institutions.
Inclusivity can and must transcend denominational boundaries in the Jewish community. Inclusivity cannot become the banner of only one movement but rather must be the common denominator linking all Jews and the varied ways Jews practice their Judaism. Thus, it was with a great amount of excitement that my congregation, BMH-BJ: The Denver Synagogue hosted the 2013 Keshet Training Institute and sent members of our staff to attend. The Denver Synagogue is the oldest and largest Modern Orthodox congregation in Colorado with a history going back more than a century.
When I was contacted a few months ago by Keshet, inviting me to participate in their Training Institute, it dawned upon me that this presented a wonderful opportunity for partnership and collaboration. It is relatively easy to use words like inclusive and welcoming but actions speak much louder than words, and I wanted to make it unequivocally clear that our synagogue, like Abraham’s tent, is open on all sides. I was tremendously pleased that Keshet agreed to take me up on my offer and partner with us. I believe this is the first time a Keshet Training Institute was held in an Orthodox synagogue and I pray that it will not be the last.
In 1901 BMH-BJ hired its first rabbi, a young graduate from rabbinical school in New York and a recent transplant to America from Vilna, and relocated him to the wild west of Denver. This rabbi, Hillel Kauvar, became the first traditionally minded rabbi in Colorado to offer sermons in English. The synagogue understood 112 years ago that in order to live up to its mission of providing a true home for people who sought the embrace of traditional Judaism it would need to recognize a reality that few other synagogues wanted to come to terms with – the decline of Yiddish as a spoken language. This tradition of living inclusion to its maximal extent within the construct of halakha, Jewish law, continues today and the partnership with Keshet for the 2013 Training Institute is another link in that chain.