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Vayera 5782 - Welcoming In From Outside Our Tent

October 23, 2021

In the Shreveport Jewish community, we are currently experiencing what I have heard several community members call a “mass Exodus.” People are leaving for all the right reasons - for example, to be close to family or to find a more fitting career. And yet, our dwindling numbers can seem daunting to those of us still here. Will we be able to sustain minyanim at Shabbat services? Will we be able to maintain enough funds or volunteers to keep this community afloat? While I am confident that our prayer community will stay strong, even with fewer families and individuals in the short term, now is the time for us to double down on our vision of welcoming at Agudath Achim.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Masekhet Shabbat, our Rabbis teach that “Hakhnasat orkhim, welcoming guests, is a greater mitzvah than welcoming the Shekhinah, God’s presence” (127a). At the very beginning of Parashat Vayera, Avraham presents a glowing example of hakhnasat orkhim. Even though he does not know that the three men who visit him are messengers from God, Avraham rushes to welcome his guests. In his preparations, Avraham runs to greet them, rushes to Sarah to announce the guests’ arrival, asks Sarah to hurry in her preparations, hurries in his preparation of “tender, good” sheep, and tells his young servant to hurry as well. Variations of the words maher and ratz - quickly and running - appear again and again throughout the guests’ visit. Knowing that he cannot fully serve his guests on his own, Avraham enlists the help of Sarah and his young servant, as well. Through his actions, Avraham exemplifies the time-sensitive nature of welcoming guests, the importance of welcoming with the best food and drink possible, and the power of numbers in welcoming.

At Agudath Achim, we are diving deep into conversations about inclusion and welcoming, in a learning group that began before the holidays and is starting up again this weekend. In our group, we are discussing the culture, aesthetics, ritual, and structure of welcoming, from our choice of words to how we lay out our building, so that both our long-time members and our newest guests can enjoy the physical and spiritual space of our holy community. We have spoken about the practicalities of welcoming elsewhere in this synagogue space before, through finance committee meetings, board meetings, and divrei Torah. We know the importance of mindfully greeting someone new to the sanctuary, providing the best refreshments we can, and practicing ritual in a way that is both accessible and firmly rooted in Jewish tradition. Today, I am going to ask us to take one more active step in that journey of welcoming and inclusion. 

I am certain that each of us here knows at least one unaffiliated Jewish individual or family in the Shreveport-Bossier area. As we experience the exit of several of our core community members, I ask that after Shabbat ends tomorrow night, each of us reaches out to one unaffiliated Jewish friend and invites them to visit us at Agudath Achim. You can invite them to a service or a social event, whichever feels more accessible to them. To make your invitation even more active, you can offer to drive them here at a certain date and time, making sure that they actually attend. If the synagogue space is still too intimidating, you can start out by inviting them to a Shabbat dinner at your home, along with another member of our community or two. Perhaps the experience of Judaism in the home will be intriguing enough to leave them wanting more.

At this time, I cannot help but think about the momentum of Avraham’s welcoming. It is fast-paced, almost aggressive, and right now, when our members seem to be leaving more quickly than usual, we need to embrace a bit more of that active enthusiasm for new participants. Although we certainly will not have a huge membership at Agudath Achim any time soon, we can certainly strive towards even more of a surplus of volunteers on the bimah, in the kitchen, and in the garden. We can strive towards a membership that continues to physically support a minyan at each and every service and that financially supports more of our dreams for programming, technology, and physical space. And we can strive towards a number of members that enhances what is already one of our biggest strengths - our ability to form long-term friendships, fostering a community of celebration, comfort, and just enough challenge.

Along with inviting Jewish friends, I encourage you to invite friends who are not Jewish to spend time with us, as well. As we have seen in this community, some of our most devoted learners are those who are not Jewish or planning to become Jewish; rather, they want to learn more about who we are and what we stand for. The more of our neighbors who feel a part of this community, the more allies we have who can fight for us in times we hope will never happen. And of course, the more we welcome those outside the Jewish community into our learning, the more we can hear insights that benefit our own study and practice, too.

We are certainly not the only Jewish community focusing on a boost to welcoming. On Thursday, when I was speaking with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Interfaith Specialist, Keren McGinity, she mentioned that the USCJ’s prime concern at this moment in time is outreach. Conservative synagogues across the country are dwindling in numbers, partly because of an assumption of too many obstacles to entry. Now, with new goals in marketing and messaging, the USCJ aims to emphasize the open, diverse nature of what has historically been called “Big Tent Judaism.” 

In Shreveport and Bossier in particular, there are Jews who have not visited our synagogue yet for various reasons - they believe they will be the only person their age, they are too busy, they haven’t taken the time to look up their nearest synagogue on Google, or as Keren mentioned, they are worried they will not be welcomed. Sometimes, all these individuals or families need to get them here is a friend to let them know that they are wanted, that their presence will be appreciated. Just as Avraham waits in front of his tent in the heat of the day, anticipating visitors before they arrive, we too can and should beckon people in from outside our tent and actively ask them to enter what we know to be our sacred space. We can share what we love about our spiritual home, in hopes that even more people can find their connection to God and community here, too.

Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyyar 5784