My husband and I took a weekend getaway to Toronto. Crossing the Peace Bridge into Canada, it struck me how only one lane was allowing entry into the United States, while several lanes were entering Canada. I wondered, “How welcoming does it feel to those who wish to enter the United States?” I realize there are practical and security issues that went into the design of the border crossing, but I saw it as a metaphor. How often do people enter our synagogues or temples and feel truly welcomed?
Think about the entrance to a synagogue. Is the main entrance clearly marked? When you enter the building, is there someone there to greet you? Is there signage that makes it clear where you are supposed to go? For a family who has never stepped foot into the building before, this may be uncomfortable and intimidating.
The High Holy Days are quickly approaching. This is the time of year when our synagogues will have the greatest attendance. It is an opportunity for Jewish institutions and professionals to make a lasting impression by putting their best foot forward.
There are real challenges to making our institutional buildings warm and inviting. Security issues aside, now is the time to consider what changes we can make to ensure that our guests feel truly welcomed. Now is the time to make sure we are presenting ourselves as we truly wish to be seen.
Consider the High Holy Day ticket. Traditionally given to people who pay membership dues to the congregation, this is used for admission to services. Is the message we want to be sending: Pay first, and then you are welcome? Pay first, and then you have access to God? To community? To holiday observances? When we create welcoming and inviting experiences, people will choose to donate without feeling obligated to do so in order to obtain tickets.
Rethink the “customer” experience. Give every person a friendly greeting when they enter the building. Post signs that help everyone find the place they wish to go. Make your building and services child-friendly so those who wish to enjoy the experience with their children may do so. Set the tone and make it clear that children are welcome. Provide quiet toys for use during services. Families will thank you.
Access to rabbis. Think about the impression it makes if the rabbis and cantor would greet people before the service and not just from the bimah (altar). When clergy make themselves accessible to members and guests, they become more approachable and relatable.
Create opportunities for community building. Offering services is insufficient. We are a social people and need to feel connected to others around us. We are likely to return to a place if we have friends or other people we are looking forward to seeing.
- To Jewish leaders: Take time to make intentional introductions. Help members and guests connect to each other. Create processes to follow up and cultivate connections within the membership following the High Holy Days.
- To members and guests: Take ownership of your experience. Speak to the people sitting next to you. Introduce yourself to new people. Ask questions. Participate. Finding your place in a community may take a little time and effort.
Include everyone. Ensure every person in attendance feels valued and appreciated for who they are- people of all ages, abilities, any gender identity, interfaith families- people of every shade, shape, perspective and background.
We must live the value of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests) and demonstrate that every person is truly welcome in our communities.
Rabbi Melinda Mersack is the Director of jHUB, which provides new ways for interfaith couples and families to comfortably explore Jewish culture in the modern world, a program of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland and an InterfaithFamily affiliate. Rabbi Mersack is proud to be a Rabbis Without Borders Fellow and a Brickner Fellow of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Rabbi Mersack attends summer camp as visiting faculty every year, and is an advocate for interreligious dialogue and social justice. She holds a B.A. from Washington University in St. Louis, and a Masters of Hebrew Letters and ordination from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion.