6 Ways Your Congregation Can Be Even More Welcoming at Rosh HaShanah

September 13, 2016Rabbi Julie Zupan

As it happened, this summer my family and I were hosts to a lot of out-of-town guests in rapid succession. Some were close family members, close enough that the adults poured their own coffee in the morning and the teens didn’t need to ask before opening the fridge and helping themselves to a snack. Other guests were like my dear friends from college: I see them infrequently, and though I adore them, there’s a bit more formality in our interactions. For those guests, I poured their coffee in the morning and quickly learned just how they take it.

Yes, having houseguests is work, but it’s the kind of work I do lovingly. I’m grateful for our relationships, and I know my life is enriched by our time together.

Chances are good that during the High Holidays, your congregation will host both out-of-town guests and locals who haven’t yet committed to a congregational home, as well as new members and members who haven’t attended in awhile. Many of these individuals are Jewish; many are not. For some, this will be their very first Rosh HaShanah experience ever; for others, this is their first Rosh HaShanah since becoming Jewish.

Of course, unless they tell you directly, you can’t possibly know someone’s Jewish experience, education, or background – so let’s treat every person who connects to our communities like both a family member coming home and an honored guest.

Here are six ways to help us do just that:

1. Make it easy for those who wish to join you for the holidays to do so.    

Congregations handle tickets and dues many different ways, but whatever you do, remember: The fact that folks want to be with you is a good thing. Consider posting an invitation to join you on social media (e.g. your Facebook page) and in secular press. Your warm welcome begins even before they arrive.

2. Aim for every first encounter to include a friendly face and warm words of welcome.

Station greeters in the parking lot, at the front doors of the building, in the lobby, and at the doors of the sanctuary. Every person deserves a smile and a “Shanah Tovah, sweet new year” before the security once-over or a request to show tickets.

3. Post your congregational “thou shall” list (and consider forgoing the “thou shall nots”).

Societal norms have changed; it’s probably no longer necessary (or effective) to instruct folks to refrain from smoking on the premises or to keep cell phones discreet. Consider the moods or feelings you hope to create as people enter and how your signage reflects and fosters those moods and feelings.

4. Welcome people with something to further the experience.

Offer a slice of apple in honey or a bite of honey cake (and a hand wipe!) as folks arrive, share  a prayer or poem, a description of ways to get involved, or a honey stick and a sweet message.

5. Anticipate your guests’ needs.

Anxiety and awkwardness increase when we don’t know what to expect or what’s expected of us. Provide clear information so people know where to go and what to do, especially if there are multiple venues in your space. If you offer a basket of kippot or a rack of tallitot, place clear and prominent signs that clue worshipers into your congregational norms and expectations. (Ideally, these signs might also educate those unfamiliar regarding the ritual items.) Be sure greeters know your synagogue’s policies, and instruct ushers and greeters to be on the lookout for individuals who might benefit from extra assistance. Have clear signs directing individuals to all-gender and/or single use restrooms.

6. Thank people for joining you.

People need to know that your congregational community is glad they have chosen to be with you. Everyone should feel like the proverbial tenth man who makes the minyan; our community would be incomplete and disadvantaged without them. Just as greeters offered a friendly welcome, they can offer a friendly farewell.

What else is your community’s leadership doing and thinking about as you prepare to welcome worshippers to our congregation for the High Holidays? Let us know in the worship group or the audacious hospitality group in The Tent.

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