Syncing our Words and Actions to be a Welcoming Community

By Rabbi Danny Burkeman

“We know what a person thinks not when he tells us what he thinks, but by his actions.”
Isaac Bashevis Singer

As synagogues we are generally (read: are hopefully) good at saying the right things. We make the statements that people want to hear in relation to welcoming, inclusivity, acceptance and caring; but all too often, unfortunately, the actions and experiences are at odds with the words that are heard or shared.

How frequently do we find ourselves in Jewish settings where we listen to people making statements that are implicitly (or in some cases explicitly) critical of interfaith relationships, while others express their frustration that interfaith families are reluctant to more fully engage with the community? They lament people “marrying out,” while at the same time expecting that their outreach programs to those same families will be successful. And then those interfaith families are criticized for not choosing to join the community. The best and most well-funded outreach and welcoming programs will never be successful if the implicit messages coming from the same community are negative, exclusionary and inhospitable.

I keep thinking about the importance of both the explicit and implicit messages we give as synagogues and as a Jewish community – especially, but not exclusively, in the area of interfaith relationships.

Clergy, leadership, inclusion committees, welcoming committees and others may be well-versed in what they should be saying and how people should be welcomed into the community; but all that good work can be undone by hurtful words or comments from other members of the congregation. People walking into synagogues know what we think by our actions, not by the words clergy speak or by what we print in bulletins or on websites.

A synagogue can say it is a warm and welcoming community, but if a person enters the building without anyone greeting them, they will feel that disconnect between words and actions. A community can express a desire for more young families to attend Friday night services, but if those services start at 8pm, then the stated desire is meaningless alongside the explicit actions. And congregations can claim that interfaith families are welcome, but if these families constantly hear members complaining about children “marrying out” and the decline of Judaism, that welcome will inevitably be hollow.

The challenge for us is how can we ensure that our communal words and actions are in sync with one another – modeling in both cases what we really think.

The answer is “education, education, education.” There are three ways that we need to engage in education of our communities to ensure that our words, thoughts and actions are all in harmony.

Education about communal values. It is great that in Board meetings and across various committee tables there are discussions about the principles and values that are important to the synagogue. But this is not enough. These values need to be shared with the entire community so that everyone is aware of them; the values should be plastered on the walls and discussed in a variety of contexts so that everyone can buy in (or potentially even opt out).

Education about how our words and actions can hurt. In many of these areas we don’t fully appreciate how our personal statements or actions are heard and experienced by others. In most cases there really is no malicious intent. One person might express their dismay at their own child’s choices, but someone who has made similar choices is likely to hear the words not as a critique to be kept “in the family,” but one that extends to their choices and family as well.

Education about the needs and feelings of the groups we are trying to engage. Discussions about programming for young families take place in rooms with no one under the age of 60; those who have been members of synagogues for generations talk about how to engage with interfaith families, or a room of contemporary leaders talk about the needs of seniors and the elderly, deciding what’s best for them. We need to educate ourselves to hear the needs, concerns and experiences of the people we are trying to connect with – they need to be at the table if we are truly going to engage them.

At the congregation I am privileged to serve, Temple Shir Tikva, there has been a real effort to engage with interfaith families and ensure they receive acceptance and a warm welcome. There was a process to ensure clarity on the shared communal values around this subject. There was a program of education to share ways that interfaith families are sometimes unintentionally excluded. As one example the language used by members of the synagogue changed (we don’t talk about the non-Jewish partners, but the partner of another religious tradition, and we certainly never refer to people “marrying out”). This helped avoid unintentional upset. And all of this was led by interfaith families who were invited to assume leadership roles and ensure that there was a transformation across the community. Education, education, education.

Synagogues often do a great job of talking the talk. The challenge today is to make sure that we are walking and talking in a unified and consistent way. With our words and actions in unison, people will really know what we think and hopefully find communities in which to belong and be cherished.

Rabbi Danny Burkeman is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, MA., where he aspires to make Judaism relevant and meaningful in the modern world. He has a weekly podcast Two Minutes of Torah, which has been running for over 7 years, and was a member of the inaugural cohort of the UJA Federation of New York’s Rabbinic Fellowship for Visionary Leaders. He is married to Micol, the Director of the Experiential Jewish Education Network, and together they are parents of Gabriella and Benjamin.