Strangers R Us!
A rabbi whose insight I value greatly shared the following story with me.
He was speaking to the president of his congregation about their very successful advertising campaign that specifically reached out to unaffiliated singles, interfaith couples and families, seekers, LGBTs and 20s/30s. This rabbi excitedly told his president that they were expecting many individuals in these diverse groups to join the synagogue.
"Isn't that something to celebrate?" the rabbi smiled.
The president replied hopefully, "I'm really happy about that, rabbi, but are we also going to reach out to regular Jews?"
I think there is a message in this response that many of us need to acknowledge. The word "regular" can mean many things, but to this president it may have meant those who were familiar, predictable and understood--those like himself. The stranger in our midst is not part of our comfortable group, she may confound our expectations, she may not know our secret codes, she is foreign and maybe even disruptive. As a historically tribal people, we have often held mixed feelings about the outsider.
Today, because of our commitment to Reform Jewish outreach, our congregations are filled with a diversity that was not even imagined 40 or 50 years ago. We have begun to take seriously the mitzvah of ahavat ger, of loving the stranger, but knowing comes before loving and requires time, understanding and risk. Embracing the stranger is not always comfortable. In fact, the only real way to understand the stranger is to be a stranger ourselves - to experience being the one who is unfamiliar and different... the one who does not belong. Now that is a gift - the gift of being the stranger.
I remember the awkwardness of walking into my high school cafeteria on the first day of school. Would anyone I knew have this lunch period? Would I find a table that had familiar faces? It seemed as though all eyes were on me as I anxiously looked for a place to sit. There aren't many of us who don't still cringe over memories of trying to belong - to fit in. Imagine how our new members feel as they enter our community looking for acceptance, understanding, and relationship.
When we are the stranger, as we were in the land of Egypt, we earn the privilege of understanding the heart of the stranger, no matter how "irregular!"
Kathy Kahn is a former membership specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism.