Often we describe our congregation, and indeed Reform Judaism as a whole, as a “big tent” where all are welcome to enter and find meaning: Jews of all ages, Jews of all races, Jews by birth, Jews by choice, and those who love and are loved by Jews. We base this metaphor on the famous story in the book of Genesis, about Abraham welcoming the dusty travelers into his tent for rest and refreshment. There is even a midrash that suggests Abraham pitched his tent over a crossroads of camel paths, to guarantee that all passing travelers would know that they were welcome to come inside. As the prophet Isaiah (whose words can be seen on our Lee Avenue sign board) taught, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples.” The less well-remembered part of the story is how Abraham treats his guests once they’ve decided to accept his invitation. He runs to prepare food for them, to bring water to them, to take care of their needs and make them feel “at home.”
Sadly, we often do a better job of welcoming our guests when they come passing by than we do of making them feel at home once they’ve entered the big tent that is our congregation. Sometimes, the size of the tent itself and the diversity of the people inside can be intimidating. We have wonderful families of all ages: those who’ve been here for generations, those who’ve just arrived, and those who’ve moved away, but still want to feel connected. We have differing worship preferences and diverse desires, yet all of us wish to feel a part of something larger than ourselves. How, then, do we build stronger relationships and turn our tent into a true “sanctuary,” a place of peace, of comfort, and of safety: a real home?
Perhaps we could take our lead from Abraham himself who set the example so effectively. We must go out of our way to engage those passing travelers who have stopped by for a moment, in order to encourage them to stay a while an feel “at home” as we already do. Invite friends to join us for Shabbat dinner before services, or reach out to someone new and invite them to get together afterward. To our Religious School families who find the late evenings a challenge with small children, join us for the dinner and see how long you can stay! To the empty nesters, drop by the building on a Sunday morning and see it full of life and learning! Every Friday night at services I say, “Look around, in front of you and behind you, even across the aisle; if there is anyone you do not yet know, please go over and say hello, introduce yourself, and wish them a Shabbat Shalom.” While I am always delighted to see the folks who get up to greet their fellow congregants, most of us fall short of Abraham’s example of “running” to meet the strangers passing his way. Our big tent is indeed a very open and welcoming place, but we cannot rest on our laurels. We must take the next step, to greet and engage those who pass our way, to make this “house of prayer for all peoples” into a home.
A decade and a half ago, you all welcomed me into your tent and I have felt at home in Lafayette ever since. This past year, I have treasured the opportunity to reconnect with old friends and make new ones, to introduce you to my family and to introduce them to the beauty of this community. In the month ahead, I look forward to seeing you here at the Temple, and to welcoming you home again. In the years ahead, I hope and pray, you will all continue to do the same for each other, and for new travelers who find their way down Lee Avenue past your welcoming doors.