The Book of Exodus, which we conclude this Shabbat, features a very specific focus in the last 16 of its chapters. Having described the enslavement of our ancestors in Egypt, the miraculous plagues and the wondrous exodus, the escape at the sea and the revelation at Mt. Sinai, our second book of the Torah spends almost 16 chapters in the detailed description of God’s command (25:7) They shall “fashion me a sanctuary that I may dwell in their midst.”
However as difficult as it may be for us to assimilate and understand all the details given in the description of the Mishkan, clearly the portable sanctuary that traveled with our Israelite ancestors was central to their religious identity. The Kohane officiated at the holy altar and the Tablets of the Covenant were placed securely in the Holy of Holies. But from the point of view of any outsider, all that would be visible to the naked eye was one big tent at the center of the wilderness encampment.
The first Book of the Torah, Genesis, similarly has many unforgettable visual images. The Garden of Eden, Noah’s Ark, the ladder in Jacob’s dream all strike our fancy and transmit eternal messages. But perhaps the most oft-cited image of our emerging Hebrew identity is the tent of Abraham and Sarah, open on all four sides to whoever came by. In fact, most curriculums on Jewish values begin with the example of the hospitality of Abraham, running from his tent in Genesis chapter 18, to greet three passing strangers and welcome them into his home for food and drink and refreshment of the spirit.
It is this exact message of proactive hospitality and Big Tent Judaism that is our challenge today. We need institutions and programs that serve as a welcome wagon to our Jewish community. Our 21st century synagogues, temples, Jewish community centers, organizations and federations are all seeking ways to welcome more newcomers and to better serve those who have already crossed our threshold.
For too long we have heard expressions of fear of a shrinking population and an increasingly unengaged and disinterested Jewish world. Big Tent Judaism comes from the basic foundational values of Judaism, from Sarah and Abraham themselves, and it is not a product of fear but rather it is based in the joy of sharing what we find so wonderful as Jews. Last year, a New York Times Sunday Magazine article entitled “How do you prove you’re a Jew,” described how hard and insensitive Israel’s bureaucracy makes it for people to join our living Jewish community. We must balance such backwardness by the way we open our hearts and raise our arms and welcome people into our tent of Jewish life.
Simple suggestions abound; “All are welcome” signs should be on our doors and buildings for everyone to see. A community welcome mat like the United Jewish Federation’s Shalom Pittsburgh effort is just the beginning of creative outreach. The project designed for volunteers to greet shoppers in the matzah aisle of Giant Eagle merely scratches the surface of ways to identify and invite new souls. The Israel Film Festival needs to do a better job of both advertising to and then recording the names of those who attend.
Shabbat Across America is a highly acclaimed national program now in its second decade as a way to invite new faces and families. If we’re serious about Shabbat Across America we must find a way to make visitors feel comfortable and stop letting the price of a kosher Friday night dinner keep people away. I challenge Federation to find the resources to make every Shabbat Across America event free and open to all who wish to attend.
We’ve learned that in America free samples always attract attention. Think of the season we’re entering. Maxwell House Coffee revolutionized Passover on this continent by giving away free haggadot. What can we offer in our day? How can we link love of Passover foods and memories with the living Jewish community? How can we keep Israel and its dream of peace alive for our youngest generation? We need to become more “user friendly” and learn about “customer service” from the world around us. We need to merge Jewish art, music, philosophy and science in a full Jewish civilization court press. Above all we need once and for all to end the insidious outsider versus insider syndrome.
You and I have both seen time and time again how people who know each other talk to each other and people who are new or unknown stand off by themselves. That is unconscionable and we cannot continue to let it to be a defining mark of our Jewish community. We must open and fill our Big Tent with all who may wish to enter and join us: intermarried families, single parents, Jews without children, Jewish adults who did not benefit from a Jewish education, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews, Jews of color and multiracial families, Jews with physical or mental disabilities. Big Tent Judaism reminds us that the mitzvah and the mandate are to serve all Jews in our midst.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)