My family’s move from New York City to Westchester last summer reminded me about the fine art of genuine welcoming. We had explained to the few people we knew in Larchmont how it seemed an idyllic place to raise a family. To make a home. To grow old together. My husband and I commented on the quality of the schools, the abundant options to enjoy the outdoors, and the outright friendliness and enthusiasm of everyone we encountered during our touring. The few people we knew were so encouraging. So were those we met along the way. It is scary to uproot a family of five, yes, but we could do it, they said, and make our lives alongside theirs. They fielded endless questions and offered their ready and helpful friendship.
Moving my family, while continuing to build a rabbinate around interfaith and conversion work, has made me extremely sensitive to these facts: Adjustment to a new way of life is difficult. Belonging takes time. And perhaps the most important: Every encounter in a new place– especially the first one– is a potential game changer. Those very first words and acts of welcome leave an indelible mark. The follow up care and concern only solidify the foundation.
Leviticus 19:33 says …The stranger that dwells with you shall be to you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself… My understanding of this verse is that we are not only commanded to accept non-Jews and converts into our community but we are to show love and kindness toward them. Abundant, abundant kindness, as we would the natural born Jews among us.
We don’t have to turn interested parties away three times, or bring up three hardships they might encounter, or put any other obstacles in front of them. They’ll do it themselves. They’ll doubt themselves, doubt their intentions, doubt religion, doubt their choices. Our job is to walk them through the inevitable vulnerability and insecurity and steadily march them toward their goal. We must be the steadfast and solid voice of encouragement: You can do this. Our community wants you. You belong with us.
Isn’t it true? We should be so lucky that anyone is interested in Judaism. It is a fabulous, modern phenomenon that non-Jews want to marry into our community, much less become Jewish themselves! This was not the case throughout most of history. There is no reason not to feel utter respect, compassion, and excitement toward anyone remotely interested in our tradition. It deeply angers me to hear the stories (which I am treated to weekly) of rejection, humiliation, insensitivity, and discouraging first encounters with clergy. To what end were these actions meant? The tradition is not ours to give or withhold. Judaism belongs to whoever will have its blessings and join its struggle. Was Naomi standoffish, arrogant, and nasty with Ruth?
We need to be fearlessly inclusive. We must have a visible, remarkable openness to those who want to join our ranks—conversion or not. Our past validates this: Hillel, Maimonides, Saadia Gaon and many more wrote about embracing the gentile. And our future depends on it. The landscape of liberal Judaism is inextricably linked to how we handle issues of interfaith marriage and conversion. The borders of our community are not fixed. We are privileged to augment our numbers with those attracted to our tradition and teachings.
My worlds collided when I was waiting on a friend to have coffee with me in a Larchmont bakery. I ended up sharing my story with a stranger at the next table. “I’m not Jewish,” she said, “but we always have Passover seder with our neighbors and for years our kids celebrated Hannukah with a family down the block.”
Her comment reminded me of initial meetings in my office when people recount experiences from their childhood with Jews. They pave the way, they say, to being open (and attracted) to Judaism. At a recent Bet Din of a 79 year old, she spoke to us about the very first Jew she knew—a warm, kind, open, inspiring woman who was the principal of her elementary school. Seventy years ago, a Jewish principal left an impression on a young girl who would then go on to seek out Jews her entire life, marry a Jew, raise Jewish children, and convert in a late chapter in her life.
In every encounter, a Jewish future hangs in the balance. We must personify being a light unto the nations. It is commanded of us as Jews, and demanded of us as Jewish professionals.
Rabbi Lisa Rubin is the Founding Director of Central Synagogue’s Exploring Judaism & Conversion Program. Exploring Judaism, operating since 2010, serves 80-100 people a year who are considering living a Jewish life and/or converting to Judaism.