Welcoming Strangers?

I’ve been fortunate to travel to different Jewish communities during my years as a conversion candidate and it’s always interesting how different different Orthodox communities can be.  Every single one has its own personality and subtle differences and it’s neat to see all the different directions people in different places take their Judaism.

The downside is that sometimes…I find myself visiting a community that may not be so open to visitors.

This past weekend, unfortunately, I landed in such a community when I was traveling.  I spent Shabbos far from home and mostly alone.  I was hosted by a family, but they actually left their home to visit family after kiddush on Shabbos and didn’t return until some time after Shabbos had ended and I had left.  The day before, there were also some issues that helped me to feel very unwelcome.  At the shul, I tried to smile my best smile and be friendly, but the congregation itself also seemed to have a very closed off feel to it.  I managed to find another woman who seemed to feel a bit outside of it and sit with her for kiddush and we had a lovely chat, but beyond that?  I felt alone in a crowd.

Some Jewish communities are more insular than others and it can be difficult to tell from brief phone calls or emails what you’re getting into when you go to visit.  Some communities are rather happy as they are and don’t really see the need for new people to enter or perhaps they’ve developed a kind of culture amongst themselves where friendliness isn’t encouraged.  I’ve run across this in a few communities and I’ve also run across communities that are warm and welcoming, but it is definitely why I recommend for people to go and visit a community before deciding to move somewhere.

I had a lot of time to myself this past Shabbos to think and the weather was so much nicer than in Alaska, so I took a long walk and thought about what I want in a Jewish community as well as what I’d like to avoid.  It turns out that this experience was a good one because it reminded me that while a community like the one I was visiting might be perfect for someone else, it wouldn’t be a good fit for me or my family.  It helped me crystalize more of what I’m looking for.  It also made me think about my own community back in Alaska and appreciate its warmth and openness more.

I also began to wonder if anyone visiting my community had felt the way I felt here?  Had I ever neglected to welcome a visitor, to show an interest in them?  Had I ever led a visitor to feel excluded or left out?  Were there ways I could be better at welcoming strangers, at helping them feel at home and included in my own shul?  I know I’ll be looking for visitors more closely now and I’ll try harder to make sure that they feel welcome.

One day, G-d willing, Mr. Safek and I will be able to host guests for Shabbos and when that happens, I hope that we will be able to help make their visit something wonderful that brings them closer to yiddishkeit and welcome in our community.  Perhaps it took an experience of feeling unwelcome and alone to help me think more about what we need to do to prepare for that day.

I am grateful to the people who hosted me.  I don’t think they intended for me to feel hurt or unwelcome and I think there were circumstances around my visit that had little to do with me as a person that led to what happened.  They still opened their home to me and I sense that it may have been difficult for them to do so at this time and that they just weren’t in a place where they could do much more, but also genuinely didn’t want me left without nowhere to be at all.  My experiences were just a snapshot of a moment in their lives and I think they did the best that they could do in the situation.

And, I’m grateful for a difficult experience and all the lessons it can bring.  Sometimes, that’s where I learn the most.


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