May 2016 – Message From Rabbi Arnow

Welcoming, Radically

Is it enough to smile at someone when they come to shul? Is it enough to smile and say hello? Is it enough to smile, say hello, and say, “Welcome to Kol Rinah?” What is the extent to which we should welcome people to our sacred community? And by “people,” I mean everyone–regulars, first-timers, and everyone in between. The answer, of course, depends on how welcoming we want to be. If we want only to be slightly welcoming, a smile, a nod, and a “Shabbat Shalom” might be enough. But we, and I, don’t want Kol Rinah to be slightly welcoming. We need to be radically welcoming.

And that’s why I’m so excited to be (radically!) welcoming Rabbi Elianna Yolkut to Kol Rinah May 20-22 as our Scholar-in-Residence. Rabbi Yolkut is a St. Louis native and the granddaughter of our very own Irene Belsky. She’s also an experienced rabbi, teacher and writer, especially on issues of inclusion in Jewish life. During her time with us, Rabbi Yolkut will share her story of coming out of the closet, and share Torah with us about what it means for a Jewish community to be radically welcoming.

So what does “radically welcoming” mean? It’s about doing the work of eliminating historic, systemic, and inculcated barriers that limit the genuine embrace of groups generally marginalized in synagogues, including young adults, the poor, seniors, LGBTQ people, people of color, and people with disabilities. As a congregation, we have much work to do in thinking about what we can do proactively to reduce physical, cultural and social barriers to entry. But even without changing anything about Kol Rinah, the first step is awareness, and attention to the goal of being radically welcoming.

When someone walks into the building, do you go over and say hello, or wait for someone else to? When someone comes into the sanctuary and sits down, do you greet them two hours later at kiddush; or do you get up and go over and say hello, and introduce yourself quietly at the soonest appropriate moment in the service? If someone seems a little lost with the service, do you sit down next to them and offer to help them follow the service? When you see someone at kiddush sitting alone, do you sit down with them, or invite them to sit with you?

We know, intellectually, these are the right things to do, but so often, we’re a little lazy; or we think we’re not good at being friendly; or we don’t feel comfortable enough ourselves to try to make someone else feel comfortable; or we wait for someone else to do it. The worst thing that could 

happen is that someone is greeted by too many people–and that’s not so bad!

And here’s why this matters. When some people walk into a shul and are not radically welcomed, they feel the shul is unfriendly, and they think that that particular congregation is not for them. They’ve lost out on Kol Rinah; and Kol Rinah has lost out on them. But when someone who is part of a group that historically has been marginalized in Jewish life comes into a shul and is not radically welcomed, it confirms every thing they’ve always thought about the Jewish community, synagogues, and their own Jewish identity and self. They may never walk into a synagogue again. This is to say, the stakes are high.

Let’s be a place that radically welcomes everyone. It’s the right way. And it’s the Jewish way.