Group Hug

There’s a rustle of silk and swish of cotton as we shift in our seats. In readiness for Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing, we extend our talitot and place our arms around one another’s shoulders. The hazzan’s voice soars, then lands gently on the ancient words bestowing blessing, protection and peace. In the multiplicity of fringe and fabric, I find serenity.

This is the weekly scene at Temple Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Great Neck, New York. Our ancestors could not have contemplated the re-envisioning of the kohanic ritual that has vanished from most liberal synagogues. Rarely do Cohens and Kahans ascend the bima, cover their heads with talitot and splay their fingers in a Spockian V. Instead, at our rabbi’s initiative, we have adapted the ritual to serve our current needs: engaging members and creating community.

I have experienced moments of profound connectedness in my synagogue—and not just with my usual buddies. When I draped my talit around the shoulders of an older woman who sat alone, she squeezed my hand and thanked me, disclosing tearfully that I reminded her of her daughter who had passed away years earlier. For weeks, we bonded under the talit.

I have watched as entire families snuggle together under one talit and as a father fondly caresses a teenage son’s cheek. “When I hear the blessing I feel we are God’s partners. We spread our own canopies of peace around people close to us or even people we’ve never met before,” says Lori Oppenheimer, 61, a friend and member.

The ritual doesn’t succeed for everyone. One member told the rabbi that it reinforced her sense of being alone. “In a way it’s so simple but it raises an astonishing array of questions,” says our rabbi, Howard Stecker, 49. What does it mean if you don’t have children or a full nuclear family? “It sometimes requires effort to create an opening in your heart to approach someone in different cir-cumstances,” he notes.

The larger question, says Stecker, is how to help people find their place in the synagogue. “This is not a magical custom. It doesn’t evaporate all of life’s challenges. Ideally it creates a moment of connection when people feel themselves part of a larger community.”

Welcoming is not a new issue, says Ron Wolfson, 65, Fingerhut Professor of Education at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. “I have yet to meet a congregation that does not think it’s warm and welcoming,” says Wolfson, whose book, Relational Judaism (Jewish Lights), advocates a relationship-based approach to Jewish communal vitality. “Yet when I visit synagogues, I hear stories from people who tell me it was difficult to get engaged or that they have been to synagogues where no one says hello.”

Part of the problem, he says, is that the regulars have their group of friends, creating “cliques and klatches.” It’s the best part of a synagogue—that’s what relational Judaism tries to achieve—and also its challenge. “We are not wired like evangelical Christians or Chabad to approach strangers and make them feel welcome,” he says.

Wolfson outlines nine levels of relationships in synagogues and Jewish organizations that he calls the “bayns of our existence,” a pun on the Hebrew word bayn (between): Between a person and self, family, community, friends, Judaism, Jewish peoplehood, Israel, the world and God. “Being warm and welcoming is the first step,” he says, “but…the goal is to deeply engage people in a Jewish life along all these levels so that they see Judaism as a path to mean-ing and purpose, belonging and blessing.”

In his previous book, The Spirituality of Welcoming (Jewish Lights), he introduced the church practice of “passing the peace”—people turning to one another to say hello—adapting it to saying Shabbat Shalom. Since that practice has now become widespread, Wolfson and some of his colleagues are extending the concept. Opportunities for relational moments can occur during the service, he suggests. During the se-mon, for instance, the rabbi can ask a leading question (Why are you here this week? What was your most memorable moment of the week?) and encourage people to get up and talk to someone they do not know. “Remarkable things begin to happen,” Wolfson says. When he experimented with this dialogue in a group of lay leaders, two women from different communities discovered they had been in the same fourth-grade class—40 years ago.

Wolfson, who says he grew up in an “extraordinarily welcoming family,” was motivated to consider what came naturally to him on a communal level when he was a guest in a synagogue several years ago: An elderly man “kicked him out” of a seat (the one the man usually occupied) in the largely empty sanctuary. “What could the man have said that would have welcomed me and gotten him his seat?” Wolfson asks.

I have witnessed the power of welcoming firsthand. I sit with a group of women who usually attend services without spouses or partners. Our solo attendance bonds us as a quasifamily. This seating pattern is common and not limited to women; there are also groups of solo men. At the end of a service, one of my friends, Cheryl Moin, said to a woman sitting alone behind us, “Sit with us anytime.” The woman’s face shone with the warmth of the invitation. As they spoke, they dis-covered they had been neighbors a few years earlier.

I am touched by Moin’s natural talent for welcoming—something she does both intentionally and in–tuitively. “It doesn’t take a lot,” says Moin, 59, who served as chair of the membership committee for seven years. “I always try to pick a person I don’t know—someone I wouldn’t otherwise have spoken to—and say hello. I’ve gotten to meet really nice people.” Shabbat morning is a start-ing point for Moin but, she points out, “if prayer is not for you there are other entry points”—academic, social, musical and more.

Being intentional about creating opportunities for engagement is cru-cial, says Wolfson. He points to the methodology in megachurches like Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Southern California, which has or–ganized 5,000 small groups that meet weekly in members’ homes. “If you are connected to five to seven people in a congregation, you’ll feel you belong,” Wolfson says. Some synagogues have created affinity groups based on profession, interests or stage in life; lawyers’ groups, bar/bat mitzva families, empty nesters.

Wolfson loves to give examples of welcoming practices that work. At Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California, where he is a member, the rabbis ask congregants to stand with anyone near them who is saying Kaddish without friends or family. They also encourage people to put their arms around each other at the end of the service, when Kiddush and the Motzi are recited.

Temple Emu-nah in Lexington, Massa-chu-setts, urges people to get to know each other through shared interest groups that meet several times a month. Past president Fred Ezekiel, 85, initiated the get togethers. He started with a Massachusetts Institute of Technology night that drew 60 members. Since then he has or-gan-ized gatherings for step-mothers, start-up entrepreneurs, even the 27 members and clergy named David (one showed up dressed as Goliath). Each gathering has a facilitator.

“This is not a lecture,” Ezekiel says. “People introduce themselves, talk, argue and exchange ideas.” The suggestions are now flowing organically from congregants. “What you put in the pot comes out in the ladle,” says Ezekiel, quoting a proverb from his Baghdadi background. A Ladle Fund raised by members supports this project.

Rabbi Dan Moskovitz, 44, moved to Temple Sholom in Vancouver two years ago after leaving a congregation he had served for 13 years. When he looked at the 50 names on the Kaddish list he was to recite on Shabbat he realized he did not know a single person. “I wanted to read the names with integrity,” he says, “so I got the idea to call all the families.” Moskovitz spent almost two hours on the phone asking for a story or memory of the people who had passed away.

He has continued to make week-ly calls. “People have come to expect the call,” he says. “They store up stories to tell me…and I treat the stories with delicate hands.” Moskovitz, too, benefits. “It is the holiest part of my week.”

Although it was not his motivation, Moskovitz was creating a way to connect himself to a new community. Like him, others who move to a new place, experience a change in status (new baby, death in the family) or are a minority (singles or gays in a traditional synagogue made up of heterosexual cou-ples) can find the community to be isolat-ing. A synagogue should ask itself how to be welcoming. But the flip side of the equation rests on the individual who feels alone. It takes courage to take a step toward being part of the whole.

One of the most “devastating” anecdotes Wolfson recounts is of a long-time synagogue member who suddenly quit attending programs. When the rabbi called to ask if there was a problem, she replied, “I came to everything but I met nobody.”

“Anyone who walks into a new social setting bears part of the responsibility to make themselves known—approaching a table, responding to a greeting,” says Wolfson. “It is a challenge…. But getting engaged in the life of a congregation is something you have to want.”

The transactional synagogue model—“You give me High Holiday seats and bar mitzva lessons and I will be a member”—no longer works, he adds, “because you can build a Jewish life without a syna-gogue. You can rent a rabbi or learn online. We have to focus on giving people something they can’t get from other avenues. The synagogue must be a place for sacred relationships.”