Do We Make Secular Jews Feel Welcome in Synagogue?
Do We Make Secular Jews Feel Welcome in Synagogue?

Look at what happens in Israel on Yom Kippur, when the driving of cars and other public desecration of the holiday is generally not seen in cities and towns throughout the country. This is not due to a “Yom Kippur Rest Law,” and not due to a “Prohibition on Travel Law,” but because people have chosen to observe the day this way.

Once a year, instead of taking trips and traveling to parks, many Israelis seek to take in the atmosphere of prayer and the sacred melodies of the High Holy Days. Large numbers of men, women and children huddle by the entrances of synagogues during the Kol Nidrei and Neila services, attempting to soak up the spirit of the timeless Jewish tradition.

But there’s a catch. Not all synagogues know how to deal with these guests, and it should come as no surprise that often, the next time we feel such a profound sense of brotherhood with other members of the nation of Israel isn’t until Yom Kippur next year.

However, this reality can be changed, and all it requires is just a bit of preparation and attention on the part of the synagogue’s worshippers. For this to happen, we must first shift our perspective.

In a series of stories on the sages Hillel and Shammai, which appear in the Talmud’s Tractate Shabbat (31a), two individuals wagered on which one of them would succeed in provoking Hillel the Elder, president of the Sanhedrin. Confident he would succeed, one of the two men went to the president’s home three times in a row on a Friday afternoon prior to Shabbat, the Sabbath, shouting, “Who is Hillel?!” from the street. When Hillel came out to greet him, the man asked him stupid and irrelevant questions about those living in different parts of the world.

Each time a question was asked, Hillel patiently responded: “That is a great question, my son.” The Midrash goes on to relate how Hillel would repeatedly get out of the pre-Shabbat bath he had prepared for himself in order to greet the inquisitive man (“he clothed himself and went out to him”).

These words demonstrate Hillel’s approach to education. He leaves his comfort zone and steps into the shoes of the person posing the questions. He reasoned that the questioner, too, needs to prepare for Shabbat, and if it is so important for him to seek his counsel three times in a row on Erev Shabbat, he must have a great question in mind. Hillel did not assess the world around him only from his own perspective (as Shammai had done), but rather through the eyes of the individual asking him the questions.

This is the type of approach we must adopt as those who regularly pray in synagogue. We must step into the shoes of someone who only comes to synagogue once a year and feels out of place, like a tourist who doesn’t understand the language of the local population.

Questions that may seem trivial to those used to being in a synagogue may seem like an impenetrable wall to one-time visitors. Where can I sit? When do the services begin, and when do they conclude? What kind of “equipment” do we need to bring? How do we use this “equipment”? Which “book” should we take off the bookshelf, which is already filled with so many “books”?

The sense of other-ness that a visitor to synagogue feels might express itself in the visitor’s desperate attempts to follow the movements of the people around him. He or she may peer to the left or to the right to understand when we sit and when we stand, and just as he or she decides to stand, the rest of the congregation suddenly sits down. A sudden movement by the entire congregation, such as responding “amen” or chanting an unfamiliar melody in unison (with the exception of the visitor) may make the visitor feel as if this really isn’t his or her place.

So, what can be done? How can we, as synagogue-goers, change this unfortunate situation? Here are ten “commandments”, which require a bit of preparation and creativity, but could radically change a visitor’s experience. They might even thirst for more.

1. Invitation. Any visitor arriving without an invitation may feel unwanted, or at the very least, out of place. Every established congregation should have a list of neighborhood families that have visited the synagogue, either in celebration or in mourning. A personal invitation from the rabbi and congregation to every neighborhood resident that has ever maintained any contact with the community, along with a letter detailing the order of the prayers and service times, can break down many barriers.

2. Seating arrangements. For many congregations, the High Holy Days are a vital source of income, raised by selling seats. The greatness of a congregation can also be assessed through its ability to “contribute” several empty seats for guests. They should be clearly marked and referenced in the invitations. The feeling that one need not stand in the back, and an invitation to sit with everyone else, can mitigate the sense of other-ness.

3. Preparing the congregation. As in any other area, nothing occurs out of nowhere. For a congregation to come to the point of properly welcoming its guests, the rabbi must prepare it to graciously welcome any guest. Any regular worshipper can and should pay attention to guests, greeting them with a “Chag Sameach”, and offering them a place to sit, even at the expense of “a regular’s” own seat. To serve as an example to my own congregation, I invite guests to sit in the rabbi’s seat or in my children’s seats. What’s important is that they have a place to sit.

4. Explanations: We can stop the tefilah at certain points in order to provide short explanations, chiefly when there are many guests at the synagogue. This will make guests feel more oriented, and regular worshippers may also benefit from a more meaningful tefilah.

5. Orientation during the Tefilah. We should help our guests find the appropriate page in the machzor during the tefillah. Congregations can use a single machzor edition, read out page numbers, or have regular worshippers help orient guests. However, care must be taken not to overdo it. We don’t need to be obsessive in our desire to help. Sometimes, acts that come from a good place, such as someone giving a guest his or her own machzor, may make the guest feel unpleasant, as though he or she was being patronized.

6. A Personal Connection: We need to try to create a personal connection with our guests. As a pulpit rabbi, I spend much of the tefilah at the back of the shul, where I try to embrace or shake the hand of each and every guest. Those that go the extra mile in keeping the commandment of kiruv levavot, or drawing hearts together, leave a business card or a congregational flyer with guests, with a personal appeal to stay in touch.

7. Dvar Torah. The most vital times for a rabbi to meet most of the guests are immediately after Kol Nidrei and right before Neilah. Hearts are most receptive at this time, and the rabbi should prepare some emotional and inspiring words for the occasion. This is not the time to delve into commentaries, new interpretations or scholarly Divrei Torah. The rabbi should transmit a simple and relevant message, enhanced with a moving story and a few examples from the here and now.

8. Singing. Songs and melodies play a very significant role in the tefilah experience, especially during the High Holy Days. We should coordinate with the cantors ahead of time, to be sure that they sing classic and well-known melodies, so that everyone can connect to the tefilah. We can suggest sending out CDs with the songs and melodies of Yom Kippur ahead of time, or sending an email before the holiday with links to classic melodies.

9. The Yizkor Service. The Yizkor service is very important for any family that has lost one of its members. The invitation to guests should include a brief explanation of the Yizkor prayer and a special invitation to participate. A brief introduction should be given before the service begins, to infuse meaning and content into the prayers. This year we can specifically mention stories dedicated to the memory of soldiers that fell defending the country.

10. Warmth and Love. Above all, we need to spread love, love and more love. The one thing that will do the most to tear down the walls of fear and other-ness is the sense of warmth and love, a second home, belonging, reliving age-old traditions, connecting with the sanctity of timeless traditions, and combining the past with the present.

We began this article with a story of Hillel the Elder, and we’ll end it with his motto: “Be a student of Aaron (the first High Priest), loving peace, pursuing peace, and loving G-d’s creations, drawing them closer to the Torah.” Rav Yaakov Moshe Harlap, z”l, expounds on Hillel’s motto, saying the following:

True and unconditional love humbles the recipient toward the one who loves him. This was Aaron’s character, who, through his expression of love, was able to cause the one he encountered to humble himself, and by extension, to humble himself in the face of G-d’s Holiness.

I once read an article by an American rabbi who explained the secret behind the success of Disney. He claimed that what makes Disney World such a happy place is the thousands of people whose role is to stand and smile at all passersby. That rabbi called on his congregation (located not far from Disney World) to adopt this principle, borrowed from an amusement park, and smile at each guest or visitor to the synagogue.

The Mishnah at the end of Tractate Ta’anit states that “the two happiest holidays in Israel were Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur.” A smile, warmth, love and much happiness will, most of all, create a home-like atmosphere and a sense of belonging. It will break down the brick walls that currently keep secular Israelis out of synagogues.

A small effort by a congregation that can have a great impact on Israeli society.