Making Judaism Welcoming for Everyone

In hushed tones, a lady whispers to me that she doesn’t really belong in Torah study. This is not the first time I have heard this sentiment. Unfortunately, the majority of people who walk through the doors of Jewish synagogues, institutes or places of Jewish study believe that they are out of place.

               This insufficiency is not only felt by Jewish lay people, but also by Jewish professionals and even some rabbis. I am constantly struck when, sitting in a room of the brightest rabbinic minds of our times, I become aware of the self-doubt that seeps out of every pore. I know you might be thinking there is no way rabbis feel this way, but I promise you it’s true. Sometimes the humility is disguised as hubris, and sometimes it just takes the right circumstances, but every rabbi I know feels as if their knowledge falls short.

               Too often, congregants feel they are the least Jewishly knowledgeable in the room. Many have shared with me that they are convinced everyone else received a more authentic Jewish upbringing than they did.

It doesn’t seem to matter how successful people are in their professional lives – once they walk into a Jewish synagogue or institution, they slip into self-doubt and inadequacy.

Why do our “warm, welcoming” institutions put everyone on edge? This is a huge problem that synagogues, in particular, need to recognize and address in order to adequately serve the Jewish people.

Jews have long been known as “people of the book,” emphasizing the importance for education and study. Doting parents are both stereotypically and practically obsessed with their children’s academic accomplishments. We of course want our children to succeed in everything they do from their bat mitzvahs to their board exams and every miniscule exam in between. These unrealistic expectations pervade consciousness and stir up feelings of self-doubt.

It’s not surprising that people feel this way; for centuries, Judaism has been led by, curated and carried on by the intellectually elite. The Talmud, the oral collection of Jewish laws, was crafted by the most brilliant male rabbis of the time. It was written by them and for them…. Yet, everyone is expected to follow the rules. The average person is not actually expected to deeply understand the logic or meaning behind the laws. Often laws are passed down as minhag, custom. Because of this method of transmission, Jews often know what they are supposed to do but not necessarily why it is important to do so.

Classical rabbinic commentators such as Nahmanides and Ibn Ezra use the phrase hameivin yavin, “whoever understands will understand.” Shoshana Kordova explains, “this phrase is both a wink to those who get it and a shrug to those who don’t.” It is precisely this attitude that turns people off from our Jewish institutions. Phrases like this one, acronyms and un-translated Hebrew continues to enable an elusive exclusive club that is out of the reach for many.

Rather than just saying we want our institutions to be inclusive, warm, welcoming places, we need to look closely at how we are unintentionally excluding those in our midst we are desperate to bring in.