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Welcoming the Stranger from the Inside Out

Welcoming the Stranger from the Inside Out

The author standing in a row of people, including her newly ordained Baptist minister friend

As Jews, we are often reminded that the mandate to “welcome the stranger” is the most oft-cited commandment in the Torah. In the Reform community, these words are a call to conscience – we are called to act in solidary with DREAMers fighting to stay in the country they consider home; we are called to advocate for an Israel that treats refugees with respect and care. We are called to make our homes, our congregations, and our countries places of refuge and sanctuary to those of different experience, circumstance, or background.

But what about our hearts?

It occurred to me recently that I have spent most of my life thinking of “welcoming the stranger” in terms of physical space – to me, it meant making a place I occupy open and warm to those who might want or need it.  

A recent set of experiences has challenged me to expand this understanding – to approach welcoming the stranger also as an internal transformation.

I credit two things with this evolution.

First, last year, partially through my work with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (the organizing and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement) and partially through my own intellectual passion and curiosity about interfaith engagement, I applied for a fellowship with the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC).

The BJC is a longtime partner of Reform Judaism in the important work of religious liberty. It serves a similar function as the Religious Action Center: organizing the Baptist community to protect the rights of all Americans to believe what they choose. Before I was selected for the program, it had never included a non-Christian participant.

When I arrived for the intensive, five-day fellowship seminar, I was nervous. Despite all my years in the study of religion, I didn’t know much about Baptists. In fact, I didn’t yet know what I didn’t know (which turned out to be a lot).

The week was tremendous – I made new friends, I learned heaps, and I ate well. I stayed up late discussing intersections between Judaism and the Baptist tradition, I answered challenging questions and asked a few of my own. I walked away feeling energized, openhearted, and excited about building bridges between the two faith traditions.

Second, earlier this year, I began a Mussar for Millennials class at Temple Micah in Washington, D.C. Mussar is a Jewish spiritual practice that encourages careful reflection and action to strengthen character traits associated with living an ethical, Jewish life. As a part of my commitment to the class, I agreed to document the way a different trait manifests in my life each week. This practice – this mindfulness of both the world around me and of myself as an actor in it – has sharpened the attention I pay to my own choices and behavior.

Recently, a friend and mentor at the BJC was ordained into the Baptist ministry. (Did you know that some but not all types of Baptists ordain women?). Her ordination was the first full Baptist service I had ever attended. She asked me if I might be willing to read a selection from the Book of Micah which speaks to our shared belief that a faithful life is one spent actively pursuing justice and building a better world. I offered to read it in both Hebrew and English (a spontaneous and strange offer, given the last time I’d read Hebrew in front of people was at my bat mitzvah).

As the service began, I grew nervous. What is a benediction? Does one stand during a litany? As I approached the pulpit for my reading, I found myself looking out at a crowd of people I didn’t know in a church I’d never attended in a city I’d never visited. I realized that, in fact, what I was doing was welcoming the stranger. Indeed, in that moment, I recognized that the entire experience, beginning with the fellowship itself, had been an exercise in doing so.

In joining this fellowship, in reading Hebrew publicly, in sitting and standing at all the wrong times, I was identifying myself as “different” and making space for meaningful connection across that line.

This connection had nothing to do with physical space; rather, it was about letting people into my life and into my heart. It wasn’t about what space I could offer others from a position of privilege or power; it was about the opportunities that emerge when we approach strange and foreign situations (or new and different people) with humility and an open heart.

I still believe that the commandment to welcome the stranger means we should, as Jews, fight for the rights of DREAMers and refugees to build better and safer lives.

But now I believe it can mean something else, too – making space in our hearts for those we welcome, pushing us toward internal growth and transformation.

Sofi Hersher is the former assistant communications director at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. She holds a master’s degree in religion in the contemporary world from King’s College London and a bachelor’s degree in comparative religion from the University of Washington – Seattle. She is a member of Temple Micah in Washington, D.C. and Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento, CA.


Sofi Hersher
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