Sunday, 8 November 2015

Audacious Hospitality

In Parashat Vayeira (Genesis 18:1-8), we are regaled with the story of Abraham and the wanderers. 
And God appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre as he was sitting at the entrance of the tent at about the hottest time of the day. Looking up, he saw: lo--three men standing opposite him! Seeing [them,] he ran from the entrance of the tent to meet them, bowing down to the ground, he said, "My lords, if I have found favour in your sight, please do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought; there was your feet and recline under a tree, and let me bring a bit of bread and you can restore yourselves.  Then you can go on--now that you have come across your servant." And they responded: Very well, do as you propose.
Abraham hurried toward the tent, to Sarah, and said, "Hurry, knead three measures of wheat-flour and bake some cakes!" Abraham then ran to the herd and took a young calf tender and sound, and gave it to the servant lad, who quickly prepared it. He took sour milk and [sweet] milk and the calf he had prepared and set it all before them; and as he stood over them under the tree, they ate.
What we often forget about this story is that not only is Abraham the consummate host, but he is actually quite ill at the time. He is sitting quietly at the beginning of the story because he is recovering from just having circumcised himself as a tangible sign of his covenant with The Almighty. Abraham's genuine show of hospitality and generosity is even more impressive given his advanced age and physical condition. For Abraham, welcoming the stranger was easy because it was a wholly natural impulse.

As I write this, 5000 of my fellow Reform Jews are gathered together in Orlando for the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial. It is a time when our movement takes stock of its congregational health, its members spiritual needs, its social justice responses, its continued learning and growing, and frankly it's just a damn good time. The music is phenomenal, the prayer experiences like no other, the study sessions are creative as hell, and Shabbat uplifts both body and spirit. I am sorry to be missing it this year, but one can't have it all, so I am following from afar.

One of the themes of the movement over the past couple of years is something that a smart  marketing guy has termed Audacious Hospitality. Personally, I find catchphrases anathema. They simply don't mean anything unless they have something substantive to back them up. The idea behind Audacious Hospitality is to correctly suggest that our congregations and our communities have been less than adequate at welcoming the new, the challenged, the different, the unique. We have also been less than stellar at engaging those who have remained. But we Jews are always striving to be B'zelem Elohim, in God's image, so I am willing to cautiously join the bandwagon. The Union made an auspicious declaration in the name of Audacious Hospitality, when it became the first major branch of any religion to comprehensively, unconditionally, and unanimously open its doors to transgender individuals. The resolution is extensive and sweeping.

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT the Union for Reform Judaism:
  1. Affirms its commitment to the full equality, inclusion and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions;
  2. Affirms the right of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals to be referred to by their name, gender, and pronoun of preference in our congregations, camps, schools, and other Reform affiliated organizations;
  3. Encourages Reform congregations, congregants, clergy, camps, institutions and affiliates, including NFTY, to continue to advocate for the rights of people of all gender identities and gender expressions;
  4. Urges the adoption and implementation of legislation and policies that prevent discrimination based on gender identity and expression, and that require individuals to be treated equally under the law as the gender by which they identify. This includes establishing the right to change without undue burden their identification documents to reflect their gender and name and ensuring equal access to medical and social services;
  5. Calls on the U.S. and Canadian governments at all levels to review and revise all laws and policies to ensure full equality and protections for people of all gender identities and expressions;
  6. Urges Reform Movement institutions to begin or continue to work with local and national Jewish transgender, lesbian, gay and bisexual organizations to create inclusive and welcoming communities for people of all gender identities and expressions and to spread awareness and increase knowledge of issues related to gender identity and expression. These activities may include cultural competency trainings for religious school staff, the new congregational resource guide on transgender inclusion being created by the Religious Action Center, education programs on gender identity and expression, and sermons on the topic of gender identity and gender expression;
  7. Recommends URJ congregations and Reform Movement institutions, facilities and events ensure, to the extent feasible, the availability of gender-neutral restrooms and other physical site needs that ensure dignity and safety for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals;
  8. Urges Reform Movement institutions to review their use of language in prayers, forms and policies in an effort to ensure people of all gender identities and gender expressions are welcomed, included, accepted and respected. This includes developing statements of inclusion and/or non-discrimination policies pertaining to gender identity and gender expression, the use when feasible of gender-neutral language, and offering more than two gender options or eliminating the need to select a gender on forms; and
  9. Will work in collaboration with other Reform Movement institutions to create ritual, programmatic and educational materials that will empower such institutions to be more inclusive and welcoming of people of all gender identities and expressions.
I couldn't be more proud of my movement or of my Union. This follows naturally on the heels of the ordination of gay and transgender clergy, the decades long support of same-sex marriage, and the lowering of barriers to those who face physical or emotional challenges. We have come together as Jews and vociferously proclaimed "All are welcome."

But we cannot truly walk in Abraham's shoes until we are willing to bring that lesson home to our congregations. We can't just say we are welcoming. We must live it. It isn't enough to just say "Hi" to the newcomer. We must go the extra step. Here are some easy starter suggestions that lay leaders and average congregants might want to try in order to extend that hospitality.
  • Make phone calls. Emails get tossed. Mail gets lost. But phone calls stick. Call just to chat, to impart information, and to glean concerns. "Hey, I saw you dropping off your kids at Hebrew school and I realized that we are on the same schedule. Want to grab a coffee next week?" 
  • Arrange play dates for the kids. Kids involvement can often translate into parents involvement.
  • Send New Year, Chanukah, and Passover greetings. Digital is fine, but snail mail is better. People love the personal touch.
  • Remember the child-free and the empty-nesters. Not everybody who joins a religious institution does so with kids. Highlight adult education and adult social experiences as priorities.
  • Feed them. Often. And with gusto. At every meeting and at every event. Nothing says welcome like food. Invite people for Shabbat lunches or take them by the hand and walk them into the Kiddush. Food is the great Jewish equalizer.
  • Visit the hospital beds of the sick and the shiva houses of the mourners, even if you only have a passing acquaintance. It matters and it is remembered.
  • Keep your website and social media sites relevant, up to date, and interactive. They are your gateways to communications with members. Members stop coming when communication is an afterthought.
The thing about Audacious Hospitality is that it falls flat when it feels forced or false. It succeeds when we, like Abraham, behave as if it were the norm rather than the exception. We have to learn to make welcoming the stranger an everyday part of synagogue and communal lives. Our Union has made incredible steps dealing with the large issues. We must now do the work on the ground. We are charged with the care of the individual. Until we follow Abraham's example, Audacious Hospitality is just a catchphrase.

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