Allergic to Judaism?


God bless the inventors of Benadryl. My goodness – allergy season is in full gear, and you can see its wear and tear on the people around you. Swollen eyes, runny noses, and sluggish speech – these are the marks of those who suffer from seasonal allergies. So, what do you do if you are affected? You stay away from the outdoors, you keep your air conditioner on, and you take your medicine.

All of these efforts to avoid allergy triggers reminded me of stories I’ve heard about those who work hard to avoid Judaism. I think of those friends of mine, or family members of congregants, or people I meet along the way – all those who seem to be “allergic” to Judaism. Now, of course, I’m not suggesting that they actually suffer from a medical condition that requires them to avoid synagogues (though a friend of mine sneezes every time he enters the building…). Yet, I think we leaders of Jewish life would do well to consider the things that keep people away. What might “trigger their allergies?”

I asked this question at a recent Ritual Committee meeting. I wanted to know what this group of committed congregants imagine might keep potential members away. One woman shared a saddening story with the group: when her husband first passed away, she decided to come to synagogue for Friday night services. It was soon after his death, so she found herself crying throughout much of the service. Though she sat there, alone, in tears, not a single person there approached her to ask what was wrong. Not a single person thought to inquire about what she was crying. She left feeling even worse than when she had arrived, and she did not return for many years.

Another committee member remembered how it felt when he first started attending events at the synagogue. He said he was welcomed warmly, but was ashamed to do too much, lest anyone discover how little he knew about his Jewish heritage.

Yet another member spoke about an interesting dichotomy in her daughters. Both daughters are very involved in Jewish life (and are Jewish professionals in their own ways), but want nothing to do with a synagogue. They have strong Jewish identities, and are involved in a number of Jewish social groups, but have no interest in affiliation with a congregation.

These three cases highlight blind spots in our efforts to welcome people into our communities.

First, we want to believe that we are caring communities, and many of our congregations truly are. And, yet, we still hear stories like this woman’s – she was clearly in distress, but no one came to her aid. It is perfectly understandable why she avoided synagogue life following that incident. I wish I could explain to her why it happened. Were the other congregants truly oblivious to her suffering? Were they perhaps too nervous to approach a sad person they didn’t know? Did they think she wanted her privacy? Regardless, she was abandoned in her moment of need. We all need to remember – professional and lay person alike – to take care of those around us and offer a hand to those in need.

Next, we must remember that not everyone is necessarily comfortable inside our walls, and we should do all we can to emanate a non-judgmental, warm, and welcoming environment. Learning is okay, asking questions is okay, and not having all the answers is okay. No one need be perfect, nor a “Super-Jew.” Rather, I hope that all who wish to be a part of the community will find a home there.

Finally, we must realize that the upcoming generations (especially those in their 20’s and 30’s) are looking for something very different than the synagogue life of the 20th century. Luckily, most major organizations are already anticipating the changes that will be required, and are studying the trends associated with these age groups. This is my own generation, and I know that we all have much passion and love for our Judaism. Nevertheless, how we express it or celebrate it may not fit into the traditional, congregational models. How will synagogue life keep up with us?

So, for those of you out there who avoid the synagogue, what’s the source of your “allergy?” Was it a specific event? A fear or anxiety? A need for something different? Share your thoughts with Jewish leaders when you can, so that your important voice can be heard. And, for those of you involved in congregational life, I encourage you to be aware of the “allergens” that you might house inside your doors. Please be aware of the barriers that you intentionally or unintentionally set up.

And may we all (ah-CHOO) find a home that’s the right fit for our own authentic Jewish selves.