How welcoming the stranger and saving a life will really make the world a better place:
A Rabbi’s call to action
by Rabbi Rachel Ain
As a rabbi at a Conservative synagogue one of the challenges I face is in figuring out how to welcome people who are unaffiliated and lacking in Jewish background, knowledge, and communal connection. As a congregation we consider which barriers we should lower in order to attract people to our community and we think about the factors that will make our community a place that a novice would want to see as their spiritual address.
This past week, I participated in a groundbreaking panel that re-framed the question about who is an outsider. Along with Rabbi David Ingber and Rabbi Dov Linzer, the panel was organized by Footsteps, a 10-year-old organization that provides a range of social, emotional and practical services to individuals grappling with the consequences of leaving the ultra-Orthodox community. The goal of the event, which was hosted by UJA-Federation of New York, was to begin a conversation between the formerly ultra-Orthodox and the more established streams of Judaism.
How, you might ask, is my commitment to working with the unaffiliated connected to former Haredim who now seek to leave that world? What is my role as a rabbi to speak in support of the important work that Footsteps is doing? And what are the core values that compelled me to be a part of this panel?
I believe strongly in the mitzvah of welcoming the stranger. Even if someone is experienced in Judaism, they may not feel at home in a Jewish environment that is different from the one they grew up in. Therefore, as a community we must understand that those who have left their ultra-religious homes are seekers (and often strangers), just like those who weren’t raised with a strong Jewish education.
It is up to us (Conservative Jews and others who are in the mainstream Jewish community) to demonstrate that our worldview offers Jews a place to both seek and find answers, a place to find balance between the religious and the secular. It is up to us to show that there can be multiple, authentic expressions of living a Jewish life, that there have always been different schools of thought with regard to Jewish observance.
But even if formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews don’t find us of interest, we still have an obligation to them. As a community leader, I believe that we bear the responsibility to look out for our brothers and sisters who are lost. Leaving the seclusion of their former communities and now facing the realities of a world they have never been exposed to requires thoughtful intervention on the part of the mainstream Jewish community.
This is where Footsteps comes in. Before Footsteps was established in 2003, ultra-Orthodox Jews who wanted to leave the community had no place to turn. Because of the limited secular education ultra-Orthodox children receive, those who left did not have the skills and knowledge to find gainful employment. Others bore deep emotional and psychological scars that prevented them from making a healthy transition to a new world. In some of the most horrific cases, people faced homelessness, succumbed to drug abuse, and took their own lives.
Thanks to Footsteps, today anyone who wishes to leave ultra-Orthodoxy has a place to turn. Since 2003, the organization, , has assisted more than 750 people. Footsteps provides a range of services, including GED prep, college scholarships, career counseling, psychological services, and a range of social events, with the goal of enabling these men and women to define their own identities, build new communities, and lead productive lives on their own terms.
One might say that in the scheme of things, 750 people is really not a large number. But here is the thing, we learn in the Talmud, in Masechet Sanhedrin that to save a life, is to save a world. To think that by assisting individuals who want to be Jewish and who want to be a part of the larger, global community, to make a difference in the world we live in, is a Jewish imperative. My intent is to make sure that the values of Judaism are perpetuated and that those who are seeking help, those who are the most vulnerable, can find their home somewhere in the Jewish community, if they so desire.I would say that there is a great deal of untapped potential within this community of formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews. Footsteppers have the ability to enlighten us about the Jewish, yet foreign, world they come from. While we have an opportunity to help our fellow Jews have the opportunities we enjoy as being members of both secular society and a religious community. I hope you will join me in getting to know the Footsteps community and in exploring ways that we can build bridges together by welcoming the stranger which I believe, is a step to saving the world.
Rabbi Rachel Ain is the Rabbi at Sutton Place Synagogue.