Leaders at almost every synagogue would say their congregation strives to be a welcoming community. The challenge, of course, is how to put that into practice. Your congregation’s clergy, leadership, values, and policies set the tone for practicing audacious hospitality. Member-to-member relationships, however, will ultimately determine the welcoming culture of a community.
Ideally, welcoming guests is a sacred obligation that should be embraced by every member of the community. The reality is that, for any number of reasons, it takes real effort and intention to reach out to people whom we don’t know, are new to our community, or appear different than us.
Here are a few practices you and your community can embrace in order to create a welcoming culture.
- Smile. A friendly face can go a long way in helping everyone feel that they can participate fully in congregational life. As Shammai, the Talmudic Rabbi taught, “greet every person with a cheerful face” (Pirkei Avot 1:15).
- Widen your circle. Greet everyone you pass or everyone who comes within a few feet of you. A simple “hello” or “Shabbat Shalom” will do the trick.
- Take five. Spend the first five minutes after the conclusion of a program or service talking to people you don’t already know, whether they be newcomers or longtime members with whom you’ve yet to connect. At times, informal schmoozing can be awkward for anyone who doesn’t have a friend by their side – and this is especially true for newcomers to your community. The transition time between the end of a program or service and an informal coffee hour or oneg is when people are likely to dash for the door. Encourage people to stay and help them feel more comfortable by spending time talking with them.
- Mention names. Not sure where to begin? Try a straightforward, “Hi, I’m... What’s your name?” Repeat their name back to them to be sure you heard it correctly and to help it stick with you. If you’re sure you’ve met this person before but you’re not sure of their name, honesty is the best policy. Preface your introduction with, “I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name…,” or “Tell me your name again…” If their name is difficult for you pronounce, admit it, apologize, and practice until you get it right.
- Greet thoughtfully. Not sure if someone is new to the community or just new to you? Begin your introduction with, “I’m not sure if we’ve met before…,” or ask, “Have we met before?” When you’re introduced to someone, try, “Nice to see you” rather than “nice to meet you,” just in case you’ve actually met before.
- Just listen. Don’t assume you know or can tell someone’s gender identity, family make-up, Jewish identity, or religious, racial, or cultural background. Rather, take a curious stance, allowing time and space for people to share more about themselves on their own terms – when they want to, what they want to, and in the way they want to.
- Share something positive or neutral. Not sure what to say next? Consider offering a small piece of relevant information about yourself and the congregation. For example, “I’ve been a member here for a long time. I love our rabbi,” or, “I moved here about a year ago.” You can also try an innocuous statement like, “I love when the choir participates.” Share something positive or neutral. Please don’t bond over a shared complaint!
- Introduce. Introduce the person with whom you are speaking to someone else you know, or offer to introduce them to lay leaders or your rabbi or cantor. You can ask, “Have you met our rabbi? Would you like me to introduce you?” And, yes, it’s OK if they decline your offer.
- End the conversation with a positive remark. After you’ve had an initial conversation, give space to the person with whom you were talking by saying “nice to talk with you,” or something similar, as you leave.
- Follow up. Next time you see this person, say hello. Refer back to one or two details of your initial conversation to remind them who you are. You can ask a warm and friendly question such as, “How is your child liking her new school?” or “How did you find Shabbat services last week?” Being remembered and seen goes a long way to building a culture of connection and belonging.
These 10 practices are simple first steps to creating a welcoming and engaging culture in your congregation. These staples of audacious hospitality and others can be found in the URJ’s Audacious Hospitality Pilot Toolkit.