Treat the Stranger That There Be No Stranger
For more than a century, American Jewry’s passionate effort to ensure that America was a welcoming country for immigrants was infused by powerful historical lessons. We were, of course, the quintessential immigrant people, fleeing from land to land, looking for those rare countries that would welcome and perhaps even protect us. Our effort was, as well, a reflection of biblical values. We take pride that the most oft-repeated command of our tradition is to treat the stranger as ourselves. But what of our own community and our synagogues?
In 1978, Rabbi Alexander Schindler vigorously called on us to reach out to “all who enter,” to open our congregations to intermarried families, later to the LGBT community, then to Jews through paternal descent. And then he called for our synagogues to become “caring communities” serving the actual needs of their members. There followed a different kind of welcoming as synagogues opened their hearts, doors and resources to absorb the deluge of “boat people” from Southeast Asia; Soviet Jews, Sudanese refugees, Ethiopian Jews all followed. Along the way, there were efforts to make our synagogues more accessible to differently abled Jews whose physical and mental capabilities made integration into our schools, our services, our programs an often discomforting challenge.
When Rev. Rick Warren addressed the Union for Reform Judaism's Biennial in 2007, describing the welcoming culture of the mega-church, he helped spur the changing approach of many of our congregations. As we move into this new year, the process of welcoming deepens and expands. How do we open ourselves to the unaffiliated? To the poor? To younger spiritually questing Jews who are moving from institution to institution, experience to experience? How do we make real the hope of the differently abled to be fully integrated into our Jewish communal lives? In this new year, may we so treat the stranger that there be no stranger in America’s synagogues.
Rabbi David Saperstein is the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. This piece originall appeared in Jewels of Elul, a reflective essay project led my Jewish musician Craig Taubman. Read more of this year’s Jewels of Elul.