Hachnasat Orchim – Welcoming the Stranger
By Katie Roeper
I can still remember sitting in the Rabbi’s office; my voice shaking as I asked if I could attend Religious School with my children. My husband and I had finally decided to raise our children Jewish after years of quiet debate. Up until this point, our interfaith family’s religious practices had been defined by lighting the menorah, just after plugging in the Christmas tree. The Rabbi glanced over to my husband and then looked at me and smiled softly, “No, I’m sorry, parents cannot attend Religious School but I am happy to suggest a few books that might help you to feel more comfortable with your decision.”
The first day of Religious School was not easy for any of us. Our son, 8, and daughter, 5½, had no idea what to expect but the thought of spending three hours in a building, 20 minutes from home, where they did not know a soul, was daunting. “We will be right downstairs the entire time,” I had said, in an attempt to allay their fears. My husband planned to attend a Brotherhood meeting and I had been invited to an opening brunch for Sisterhood.
Secretly, I was every bit as apprehensive as my children. I had no idea what Sisterhood was but, considering it was part of the Temple, I had concluded it most certainly was an organization for Jewish women. Although the letter had been sent to our house describing the brunch and inviting me to attend, I was sure they would never have sent it had they known I was not Jewish. I felt like an imposter as I nervously entered the room and was momentarily relieved when I recognized one woman I knew professionally. “Just breathe,” I told myself. She introduced me to other women and I tried to make small talk while absorbing the unfamiliar signs and symbols decorating the walls. We filled our plates with bagels and fruit and I took another deep breath as I slid into a seat at one of the round tables draped with a mint green table cloth.
Two women welcomed us and asked everyone to introduce themselves and share their earliest Jewish memory. I could feel my skin growing hot as, table by table, women stood and talked about the smell of Challah baking in their Bubbe’s kitchen, making matzo balls with Aunt Rose, and falling asleep to the clicking of Mahjong tiles. Images flooded my mind as I frantically tried to think of what I would say. None of them were appropriate. Memories of putting cookies out for Santa, shopping for Easter bonnets, and eating Sunday dinner after church – these would not work at all! I made it through my introduction by referencing my mother’s wonderful chopped liver, which she actually called pate, but I didn’t think I needed to share that detail.
At 11:30, I politely exited, nearly tripping over myself as I ran upstairs to rescue my children. I weaved my way through the hallway, swarming with parents and children, focused on the numbers painted on the classroom doors. I collected my son and then my daughter, wearing a forged smile to indicate that everything was wonderful as we rushed toward the exit sign. “Let’s go find Daddy,” I said, trying hard to steady my voice. “How was your morning?” As each of them talked about the friends they had made, I breathed in the September air to push down my anxiety.
Just then, I felt a tap on my back. I turned around to find the Sisterhood President. She put her hand on my arm and said, “I’m sorry I’m a little out of breath but I wanted to be sure to catch you before you left to let you know how happy we are that you were with us today. We would love for you to join us again next Sunday when we all get together to bake for the High Holidays.”
I was speechless. I couldn’t believe she had even noticed me in the meeting, let alone run after me to invite me to return. I managed to squeeze out a thank you before rushing off hoping she wouldn’t detect the pools collecting in my eyes.
I did show up the following week…and the week after that. Eventually I volunteered to help run the Chanukah Shop, and design marketing materials, and even serve as Membership Chair. I guess you could say I grew into Judaism through Sisterhood. They taught me how to set a Seder table, how to light Shabbat candles, and even how to make a brisket. Not in the way that you teach a class, but rather it was a subtle learning over time, just by being together.
Eight years later I found myself in the Rabbi’s office once again, with my husband by my side and our new Rabbi on the other side of the desk. This time it was to ask how I could convert to Judaism. Since then, I have served as Sisterhood President, as Vice President of Programming and Advocacy for WRJ, and am currently the 1st Vice President for our Congregation.
I have always been grateful for the one person who ran after me on our family’s first morning of Religious School. I am grateful she took the time, on one of the busiest days of the year, to find me in a sea of people to invite me to come back. That one action eased my mind at a moment when I was consumed with anxiety. That one action, although seemingly small, meant the world to me. That one action somehow assured me that this would not only be a good place to raise our family, but would also be a place that would welcome and encourage me to get involved.
Thanks to that one action, in all my years as a member of our Congregation and of WRJ, I have never underestimated the impact we can make with a smile and a few genuine words of welcome. For me, Hachnasat Orchim – “welcoming the stranger” has had an enormous ripple effect…thanks to our Sisterhood President.
The WRJ Ten Minutes of Torah series is sponsored by the Blumstein Family Fund and by Sandi and Mike Firsel and Temple Chai Sisterhood.
Katie Roeper is a member of the WRJ North American Board and First Vice President of Congregation Beth Ahabah in Richmond, Virginia, where she and her husband Ken have enjoyed 33 years of marriage and raising their two children, Shepard and Jayna.