A woman walks into the sanctuary of a congregation where she has never been before. She's had a stressful week.
She looks around at unfamiliar faces and sees that many congregants are greeting one another with warm embraces and lively conversation. She feels left out and alone.
Then a stranger gently comes up and says with a caring smile, "Hello. Shabbat Shalom. Here's a prayerbook that we use at services and that was put together by members of our congregation so that it could be accessible for those who know the prayers already, as well as those who are unfamiliar with the prayers but who want to understand the deeper meanings and intentions of the blessings and meditations."
The two women talk for a few minutes--warmly, genuinely, unpretentiously. The new visitor no longer feels so alone. In fact, she's quite surprised at how quickly she is starting to feel at home in this warm congregation called Ahavat Torah.
WHO'S THE GIVER, WHO'S THE RECEIVER?
I've always been fascinated by the volunteer greeters who reach out to those who are new (and also to those who have been to services before but who might enjoy an extra warm "hello, how are you" at the beginning of services). Who are these greeters? Why do they show up a little earlier than most other people? What are they thinking and feeling when they do their volunteer task? And are they always in the role of giving, or do they tend to receive something as well?
Helene Silber works at UCLA Extension on weekdays but on many Saturday mornings she is one of the volunteer greeters at Ahavat Torah Congregation, a few blocks west of the UCLA campus. According to Helene, "I decided to volunteer and be a greeter a few years ago and everytime I say to someone 'Good Shabbos' I feel as though it's coming back to me. The hugs, smiles, and words of recognition transcend me away from the everyday multi-tasking, multi-stressing into a special holy space. I feel myself giving love and getting love from my spiritual community. Ah, being Jewish, it is good, it is very good."
For Helene and many of the other greeters, the sacredness of Shabbat takes on an added dimension due to these moments of kindness. Helene explains, "There have been moments when I knew someone was going through a tough time, and I could reach out. Then there's often a smile or a gentle touch back that feels especially inspiring." Clearly, the greeters are not just chanting the words of the service but living up to the idea of the ancient prayers to open one's heart and be a vessel for Divine compassion.
Barbara Stone, a 5th grade teacher at a Science Magnet public school in Los Angeles, has been a greeter for the past 3 years. She has found, "It's a great way to start the day by saying Shabbat Shalom and making sure that new visitors and long-time congregants have what they need in order for them to have a meaningful experience at services."
Barbara feels, "It's important not to be too invasive when someone enters the sanctuary or is trying to get settled, but rather to be attentive and make sure this person feels welcomed and comfortable. No one wants to walk into a big room where they feel ignored or where they feel too pressured about anything. Many of us have been in exactly that situation in other congregations where you feel invisible or much too pressured right away."
In addition to the warmth she receives from the women and men she greets at services, Barbara finds, "One of the best parts of being a greeter is how much Rabbi Miriam thanks us with so much warmth and sincerity. At this congregation, the brief moments of greeting someone are not treated like a small thing but rather as something that increases the warmth of the services for each person in attendance."
Pattye Asarch, who has worked for ABC Television and other jobs, says that her volunteer work for Ahavat Torah as a greeter "gives me a lot of pleasure. I know what it's like to feel overlooked or left out, so I'm hoping that when I give a welcome to someone, hand this person our prayer book, and help them find their way in our community it makes a difference for that person."
Two of the most consistent greeters are no longer able to welcome people each week. New York native Janice Silberstein was a much-beloved greeter for several years until her sudden death this past year. British-born Lily Taylor greeted guests and members quite often for several years with her gracious, caring style until she recently moved to the Bay Area to be close to her extended family.
THE FORMAL AND THE INFORMAL
For a while, it was somewhat random and unplanned at Ahavat Torah regarding how to greet newcomers. But early on in the history of this 7 year old congregation, Sid Rosenblatt (who was then in charge of the Membership Committee) and Arlene Rosenblatt (who has helped welcome people and make them feel at home in the congregation in numerous ways) decided that being a greeter should be a solid commitment. According to Sid, "When I became membership chairman, Arlene and I did most of the greeting and enjoyed the opportunity of welcoming new worshippers, giving hugs to our members, and being the first to wish them 'Shabbat Shalom!'"
Eventually there was a dependable weekly list for each service of who are the greeters and a shared commitment by several volunteers to make sure each week there is sufficient attention given to making people feel comfortable and helping the Rabbi and Cantorial Soloists by responding to whatever logistics issues arise in the middle of a service. (The greeter list is coordinated by current membership committee director Ellen Dubois).
Quite often there are unexpected moments when the greeters do more than just greet people. One week when the congregational plumbing was "challenged", the greeters and other volunteers were immediately able to come up with creative solutions to make sure congregants were comfortable. At other times when visitors from the Twelve Step meetings in the social hall have entered the congregation, the greeters have been caring and helpful to explain to the visitors what the spiritual service is about and to welcome these individuals who had never seen a Jewish Shabbat gathering before.
But consistently 52 weeks a year at Ahavat Torah Congregation, it's not just the greeters who reach out to newcomers or who volunteer to be helpful. According to Rita Reuben, a social worker with many years of experience in large and small organizations, "One of the things I love about Ahavat Torah is that to some extent everyone feels like a greeter. I've seen so many moments where someone was kind to a newcomer or to a longtime congregant who was going through a hard time. We just seem to attract that kind of compassionate, thoughtful person."
David Rose, an accountant and financial advisor, describes how, "I have never been an actual greeter but I've often helped with putting away our books after services. I especially appreciate the efforts made by many of our members who carry multiple sets of books to me for storage. Some in the congregation just leave their books at their seats and I generally make a final tour of the pews to pick up these books. Michael Josephson in his 'Character Counts' articles and broadcasts, has talked about those who put their shopping carts away and those who do not. And I say hooray to the many people in our congregation whose 'character does count.'"
CREATING AN ENDLESS CHAIN
Quite often the kindness of one person in the congregation leads to an ongoing chain reaction of kindness. For example, Ellen Kimmel is a psychotherapist who describes how, "My first time at Ahavat Torah not very long ago, the greeters were very welcoming to me and made me feel at home. In fact, many congregants at Ahavat Torah were genuine and friendly. We were greeted not just by the official greeters, but by several other thoughtful and interesting people, too. They all made us feel we were a part of the congregation right away. I then began to attend services more often--and soon I decided to volunteer and make someone else feel as included as I was made to feel my first time attending services."
Ellen Kimmel recently became an official new member of Ahavat Torah and she's taken her place several times among the list of greeters who welcome each person at services with a warm 'Shabbat Shalom' and whatever support is needed.
For more information about the weekly Shabbat services, the High Holyday services, or the many social action programs, classes, and celebrations of the congregation, please visit http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/ or log onto http://www.creatingsacredcommunity.blogspot.com/ . Or call (310) 362-1111.
Or come see for yourself the Shabbat services (10 a.m. - 12:15 p.m. each Saturday morning) or the weekly Mussar class (on how to use Jewish teachings to strengthen one's character and daily mindfulness) from 9-10 am each Saturday. Both of these gatherings are held at 343 Church Lane (between Montana and Sunset) just west of the 405 Freeway in Brentwood.