Synagogues, a Place of Welcoming?

Does every lay person and professional in a synagogue work towards the day where everyone is always welcome in every house of God?

Synagogues (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Synagogues (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
THE TORAH PORTION TAZRIA deals with the laws of tum’ah (impurity) that can come from a human being. In some cases it is necessary for the person who is experiencing tum’ah to isolate themselves from the community. Leviticus 13:45- 46 states: “And the person with tzara’at (a form of tum’ah)… All the days that the affliction is upon him… he shall dwell in isolation; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
When we read this text we need to understand that what is inherent in the text is a reluctance to separate people from the community. In this situation due to the issue of tum’ah, the Torah decrees that it is necessary for this person to be isolated. However, in general, the emphasis in Judaism is to welcome people. Psalm 133:1 “How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters live together in unity.”
A slightly altered story: The names, places and certain details have been changed to protect the innocent and even the guilty.
A man named Barry Kamtza attended Shabbat services at Beth El Synagogue (beit el, a house of God) with his children. He was unaffiliated and thought he might join the synagogue. The Kamtza children were well behaved during services. They were better behaved than some of the adults. After services, during Kiddush, Kamtza was struggling to get the children’s coats on. It wasn’t easy; the kids were fidgety after such a long service. A group of synagogue regulars who were enjoying Kiddush watched the struggling father and his children. One of them, Dan Benjamin, without making any move to assist Kamtza, loudly remarked in a cruel voice, “I don’t know why people bring their children to synagogue.”
Kamtza asked Benjamin, “Why would you say such a mean thing to me and my children?” Benjamin angrily replied, “How dare you criticize me? I will talk to you however I want to. This is my synagogue,” and he proceeded to name the lay positions he held. He concluded by pointing to a plaque honoring him to let Kamtza know the large sum of money that he donated to the synagogue. Scenes like this hopefully do not occur regularly in most synagogues, but it is sadly the case that many synagogues are not welcoming, particularly to strangers.
At Disney World, from the time you board the monorail to the time you approach your first ride, an average of six Disney employees say “Hello! Welcome to Disney World.” It is even possible that you will receive a hug from Mickey Mouse.
In contrast, in many synagogues, from the time a stranger enters the synagogue on Shabbat to the time he or she chants “Adon Olam” at the end of the service, an average of zero congregants say “Shabbat Shalom! Welcome to our synagogue” and give him or her a handshake, let alone a hug. When you are a newcomer to a synagogue, you walk into the lobby and receive no friendly greeting. You go from the lobby to the sanctuary and still no one says hello. You finally sit down and someone comes running over – to welcome you? No. To tell you that you are sitting in his or her or someone else’s seat.
How do we make a synagogue more welcoming? A synagogue, can have greeters who welcome people at the door, help them to find seats, hand them a siddur (prayerbook), identify where in the siddur the service is, and invite them to the Kiddush after services at the synagogue (or lunch at the home of the rabbi or an involved congregant). The rabbi, instead of being up on the bima (stage), can sit with the congregation, moving around the room, sitting with different people throughout the service. The rabbi might even be stationed at the door so that he or she can be the first person to welcome someone new. Obviously all of these practices should be done without interrupting the service: a person can smile, shake someone’s hand and offer a siddur opened to the right page without saying a word.
However, even if a synagogue were to implement each of these changes, that synagogue will not be truly welcoming if it does not understand that welcoming a stranger is the obligation of the entire community. The most repeated mitzva in the Torah is to be kind to the stranger. The mitzva of welcoming guests is one of the first in the Torah (Genesis 18:1-8). The brit, the covenant, was formulated in the context of Avraham and Sarah fulfilling this mitzva.
Remember what Dan Benjamin said: “This is my synagogue.” We have, inadvertently, made synagogues clubs for the elite. The “elite” are those who donate a majority of the funds and those in lay leadership. It can be easy for this population to feel ownership of the synagogue. From ownership a sense of entitlement might result. In fact, wellmeaning institutions today talk about encouraging congregants to buy in, to be stakeholders, to have a sense of ownership.
People may manage a synagogue, but they do not own it. In every synagogue in America there is a Dan or Daniella Benjamin who needs to be reminded that the synagogue is not their house; it is a beit el, a house of God, where everyone is welcome. Let every lay person and professional in a synagogue work towards the day where everyone is always welcome in every house of God.
Rabbi David Kalb is the Director of Jewish Education at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at the 92nd Street Y in New York. He can be contacted at