“For you were strangers in Mitzrayim.” This phrase, found repeatedly in the Torah, is one that many Israelis have taken to heart. Throughout my time in Israel, I have been repeatedly astonished at how welcoming and open Israelis are to complete strangers. The stories are endless.
A few months ago, Yehudah Katz performed as part of Beth El Synagogue’s annual BEMA concert. My mother, who has been involved in planning and volunteering for this event for many years, along with my brother, offered to staff the merchandise table after the show. As the night wore down, they got to talking, and when he discovered that I was studying in Israel for the year, he immediately offered to have me over for a Shabbat dinner. Sure enough, the week after he got back to Israel, he had me over, despite the fact he was leaving town after Shabbat. And not only that, but he invited me over again to celebrate Purim at his house a few weeks later.
Another story. I was davening at a synagogue I tend to frequent; and after the kiddush, a middle-aged woman comes up to me and compliments me on my voice. She then, knowing no more about me than that I study at a yeshiva, invited me over for Shabbat dinner the next week. I didn’t end up taking her up on her offer, but the warm and welcoming feeling remains.
These are not abnormal instances. Across Israel, people welcome strangers into their homes on Shabbat, and even more so on Passover, where it’s extra important to invite others into your home. Israelis, at least among their Jewish brethren, have seemed to embrace this ‘for you were a stranger’ mentality. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that many of these people themselves were immigrants, and were taken under the wing of other recent immigrants, and want to pay back the favor. Regardless, in Israel hospitality is a cultural thing, embedded in the very nature of Israeli society.
In the United States, this feeling of welcomeness is harder to find. True, in some communities this feeling is very strong. Often it’s the smaller communities that do the best job of this, as they can easily identify new faces. In larger communities, where B’nai Mitzvah are bountiful and people are constantly passing through, often the very souls that are looking for a hand are the ones to fall through the cracks.
How do we build communities where welcomeness is pervasive? One simple way is just to ask. Many Israeli shuls ask at the end of the service if anyone needs a meal, and if anyone would be willing to host these holy guests. Alternatively, you could have a set person that is hosting on any given week, and anyone who is looking for a meal can go to them, or even better, they can invite new faces to their meal during the kiddush. A third option is something like what TC Jewfolk has done with setting people up for Pesach meals; first asking for people looking for a meal, and then posting descriptions of the people and their desires on Facebook, and asking their network to choose who they would like to host.
An alternative way to make big communities feel smaller is by actually creating smaller sub-communities. For example, last year Hillel at the University of Minnesota brought a new program called Shabbat Around the U to campus, which has expanded to once a month this year. As a part of this program, they give stipends to students to host a Shabbat dinner at their apartment for their friends, many of whom may not have ever celebrated Shabbat before. Birthright alums share brachot, blessings, with their bus; and even meals that individuals select based upon interest topics has been discussed as a fun option. Alternatively, synagogues have been experimenting with special services and meals for young adults in their community, and many have been working to create communities for young families through shabbatonim and family learning experiences.
My blessing for us is that we are able to retain the memory of having been slaves so soon after our redemption immediately following Passover. Let Passover remind us that it is our responsibility, therefore, to be welcoming and warm to the strangers in our community. Let us embrace them as a member of our family, as klal Yisrael, the Jewish people. And let us emerge on the other side of the sea together as one unified people, ready to receive the Torah of today.
(Photo: Wendy Kenin)