By Warren Hoffman
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know that “inclusion” is the hot buzzword in the synagogue world. From the interfaith couple to the LGBTQ individual to the simply “lapsed” Jew who hasn’t set foot in a synagogue for years, synagogues want it made clear that they are welcoming places. And how could they not be? Their websites all state so in bold letters about how “welcoming” and “inclusive” they are. (Ready to become a member? Here’s a membership form!)
Yet even synagogues with the best of intentions are falling far short, continuing to commit what I consider to be “epic fails” of inclusion. Below are a few real-life cases of such failures from a variety of congregations all over the country that I’ve visited in the last year that highlight just how difficult it is to do the real work of inclusion.
1. The Shy Rabbi: He was brand-new to the congregation and stood at back of the congregation. In the corner. Hiding. Despite the congregation’s excitement over their new hire and the asset that this new rabbi would be to their congregation, the new hire couldn’t seem to execute the most basic function of saying “hello” to congregants, new or old. While not every clergy person may be a whiz at schmoozing, in this day and age, if the rabbi can’t greet the congregants, it’s sort of a dealbreaker. It might not be personal, but if the congregation wants to be welcoming, the clergy need to be front and center with an outstretched arm and with smiles as big as those on Miss America contestants.
2. Welcome. But Don’t Sit Here. Or Here. Or Here: I was visiting a congregation recently that had a “complex” saved seat system seemingly only readable to those in the know. A scarf here. A casually tossed program there. Those were taken seats. And so not once, not twice, but three times, I was asked to move with no assistance given to finding an available seat or made to feel even remotely welcome. I finally found myself at the back of the congregation, seatless, sitting on a ledge by the memorial plaques where after 30 minutes I finally decided to just leave. Where were the ushers to find me a place and introduce me to others? I don’t know; I didn’t stick around long enough to find out.
3. You’re Welcome (If You Can Keep Up): A conservative synagogue was doing its best to make the case that LGBTQ members would be welcome at their shul and had organized a big “Pride Shabbat” to drive their point home. Clergy and members stood up to express just how open and inclusive the shul was and all was great … until the service began. Slow niggunim (wordless melodies) that were hard to follow were chanted by clergy, page numbers were not called, Hebrew recited without the benefit of prayerbooks with transliteration. As I looked around me, a few gay couples began to walk out and I myself, even a literate synagogue goer, was lost and confused and I too left. For many people who haven’t been to synagogue in years (which is often the case with many LGBTQ Jews), davening skills may be rusty. It’s also imperative that synagogues provide transliteration for all participants for all parts of the service. Many individuals, including many Jews who have had less than stellar Hebrew education, can quickly feel put off by services in which they are literally lost in the page, unable to make sense of Hebrew.
4. MumblePrayer™: Ok, MumblePrayer isn’t a real word and it doesn’t have a trademark, but it should. At a major conservative synagogue I was visiting, I sat through yet another service in which prayers are just sort of mumbled through … for hours. I mean, if you’re a really educated service goer, you don’t need pesky page numbers or a cantor or rabbi to lead you, you know what you’re doing (good job, day school education!) But for a visitor (Jewish or not) or someone who has had quite as much service experience, MumblePrayer™ is deadly. Where are we? What’s going on? While not unique to the conservative movement, MumblePrayer™ is all too frequent an element in such spaces, which is a particular shame as the Conservative movement, as studies have shown, is hemorrhaging more people than ever to Reform and Orthodox Judaism. If this particular movement wants to be inclusive, it needs to find a way to maintain a sense of tradition and be welcoming to less knowledgeable Jews.
5. The Non–Inclusive Inclusive Website: The website states that the synagogue is welcoming, diverse, and inclusive. And indeed, it just might be. But does the website actually back up this statement with proof? Do you have Jews of color at your synagogue and if so, are they represented visually on your synagogue’s website? What about programming or outreach for interfaith couples or LGBTQ individuals? If that sort of work isn’t happening, or if it is, but is not being explicitly communicated as part of the synagogue’s messaging, it’s hard to convince outsiders that your synagogue might be the place for them.
What all these examples show is that being a welcoming and inclusive congregation is an active process. It’s more than saying on your website that you are “welcome and inclusive.” It’s more than planting a single greeter at your door who says hello once and then leaves people to fend for themselves. It’s a conscious process that must infuse the service and congregant’s experience from start to finish. Part of the problem here is that many congregations put the onus of inclusion on the clergy and indeed, such individuals should and must play a key role in inclusion. But clergy can’t be everywhere and more than that, they only make up a small portion of a congregant’s experience. Rather, if the congregation wants to be truly welcoming, then the congregants themselves must be trained and coached on how to greet and make new people feel inclusive. Are there people willing to sit next to new people and help them follow along? What about a long-standing congregant who knows everyone and therefore can identify and engage all the new faces that day? How about inviting someone to a meal? All those things could mean the difference between someone becoming a member or never returning again to the congregation.
This past year, an independent minyan that I helped found celebrated its 10th anniversary and became the longest-operating independent minyan in our city. There’s a lot I’m proud of regarding our longevity, but I think what I’m most proud of is how we’ve aimed to model inclusivity from day one. We chose a prayer book that had Hebrew, English, and transliteration on every page. At every service, I would make sure to personally introduce myself and say hello to every single person who walked in the door, paying particular attention to the new people, letting them know how happy we were that they found us and how much we’d like to see them again (we’re not a member or a dues organization so the enthusiasm for them to return was just that: excitement that they become part of our family, not “join.”) Today I have to welcome people a lot less because most of the people who attend are some of my closest friends, but that makes it all that much easier to spot the newbies and say hello.
True inclusion is hard work. It takes conscious thought and real action. Only then will we build the community we want to become.
Warren Hoffman is the Associate Director of Jewish Life and Learning at Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. He is the author of The Passing Game: Queering Jewish American Culture and The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical. Learn more about him at www.warrenhoffman.com