A Mixed and Matched column first published in the J weekly March of 2017.
My boyfriend was raised Presbyterian and is agnostic now. I feel like a lot of Jews are agnostic and he should be comfortable in a synagogue. However, when we go to shul, I feel like the people are not as warm and outgoing as the members of his parents’ church. Why can’t Jews be as welcoming as Christians? — Love Being Jewish
Dear Love: You raise a topic that troubles many Jews today. Yes, some people do use words like “insular” and “unwelcoming” to describe people or institutions within the Jewish community, yet at the same time, many people are striving to make them more welcoming. Organizations offer to teach synagogues how to have better websites, be more solicitous of newcomers and generally make entering Jewish spaces easier.
A bit of reflection reveals the foundation of this “unfriendly” behavior.
Over the past thousands of years, there has not been a single generation of Jews that has not experienced anti-Semitism. As each generation’s own difficulties and/or horrors pile onto the heap of history, Jews have either lived with trauma or they’ve lived in a culture of post-traumatic stress disorder. Today, even in the United States, the Jewish culture is living with PTSD. While there are some who have not experienced anti-Semitism personally, they live among Jews who have.
Do you know anyone who lost family members in the Holocaust? Anyone who was picked on as a kid for being a Jew? Are you aware of the current wave of bomb threats that have been received by Jewish community centers and Jewish day schools in the U.S. and Canada?
In a climate of violence and potential violence, people naturally become wary. Jews as a group are worried and many are frightened. Insular behavior is not surprising.
The Christian religion is the largest religion in America and around the globe. It is not at all surprising that members of a church have the confidence and assuredness of the majority. It’s lovely; it’s just not a luxury that Judaism shares.
Consider a child in a classroom who is quiet and withdrawn. Telling the child to buck up and make friends won’t do any good. Being sensitive to the child, asking what is bothering or frightening him or her is a better approach. Then, to change the child’s feelings, you may have to alter the environment. In the case of the Jewish population it’s pretty hard to alter the environment. But being aware of the situation is a first step.
Unfortunately, the people who should be showing compassion aren’t necessarily doing that. Jews who want to distance themselves from “bad” Jews speak angrily about the dire consequences that will befall the parts of the Jewish community that resist being updated, diversified and/or altered. So not only is there anti-Semitism, there’s internal community conflict and condemnation.
Start by understanding what you are up against.
People are generally most comfortable with people they know. So in a new shul, what you are sensing as “not as warm and outgoing” is probably a discomfort with the new or unknown.
Second, explain it to your boyfriend so he will understand that it’s not about him; it’s about us.
Years ago I went to the funeral for the husband of a dear friend. I was the only white person at her home after the service; everyone else was African American. No one spoke to me. No one sat by me. I was regarded warily. I knew exactly what was happening. They were thinking, “What is that white woman doing here?” I did not take offense, because I understood.
In order for your boyfriend to have a warm experience, it may be necessary to go to the same shul several times. I want you to get to know a few people, introduce yourself to the rabbi, stay for the oneg. Tell people you’re “shul shopping.” That way, congregants will pridefully them tell you about their community.
I wish I could say that the Jewish community will be “better” very soon, but I don’t think we can count on that. For now, we can be compassionate toward Jews who are anxious and take charge of our own place in Jewish spaces.