We are not a country club
Parshat Noach, Genesis 6:9-11:32
Noah wasn’t Jewish.
I find it interesting that our Torah began last week with Adam, not Abraham. It began with the first person, not the first Jew. We seem to forget that Adam and Eve were not Jewish. Cain and Abel were not Jewish. Noah wasn’t Jewish. Neither was Abraham (until he converted).
So, why does God begin with Adam, the first person? To teach us that no one is greater than anyone else. So no one can say my father is better than your father; to show us that we all come from the same place. We are all brothers and sisters.
Judaism is supposed to be a welcoming religion, and every synagogue should be as well. For so many, too many, Judaism is a religion that is unwelcoming. For too many, Judaism is about shutting people out, a religion that seems to be some type of secret society, needing a special password, a secret handshake, allowing in dues-paying, ticket-holding members only. Judaism is not an exclusive religion; it is actually an inclusive religion.
The Garden of Eden taught us that all people are created equal, no one is better than anyone else. But that all changed at Mount Sinai, when we became God’s “Chosen People.” We moved from an inclusive worldview to an exclusive “country club” view of the Jewish people. What changed our focus, our worldview, from Adam to Sinai? Centuries of persecution changed us. There was a time when we lived in peace and thrived together with other religions, but as our worldview changed, we were no longer brothers and sisters, rather it became about us and them or us versus them. We need to get back to our roots, our welcoming roots.
Our open, welcoming tent is not just our religion; it must be our synagogues, our congregational families, our communities as well. We must be ambassadors for our religion and our synagogues. Every person who walks through our doors must be made to feel welcome, by all of us, all the time. I think the unwelcoming problem can be the fault of many synagogues’ structures. For a synagogue to truly be able to call itself “welcoming,” every single member must be a “member” of the membership committee. Every single member must be an ambassador for their synagogue.
If we see someone we don’t know, then we have a responsibility to go up to them and welcome them. If we meet a new person on the street, in our neighborhood, in our profession, then we have an obligation to invite them into our synagogue. If we have room at our table, we must invite them over, for Shabbat, for the holidays. We must care about one another. A community is not a bunch of strangers in the same place at the same time who happen to be Jewish.
Do we care about the person sitting next to us in a movie theater? Do we care about the person sitting next to us in a concert? Do we know when they are celebrating or when they are in mourning? Do we notice when they are missing? Or when they show up for the first time in a long time? Community means more than a lot of people being entertained; community means caring about one another. True relationships, true religion, true family, true community, takes time, energy, sacrifice and commitment.
If we come to synagogue, enjoy the service, leave, but don’t care about our fellow congregant, then we are missing the point. We are all ambassadors, inside and out. Judaism is a welcoming religion, and we are all on the membership committee. It is our responsibility to care about one another and care for one another. All are welcome.
Rabbi Alex Greenbaum is the rabbi of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.