In recent years, several sociologists have studied what makes people feel welcomed into a congregation and what makes them feel like a stranger or an outsider. If you ever have been relatively new to a synagogue, you probably know the feeling. You can say "Shabbat Shalom" or "L'shanah tovah" to several men and women you barely know year after year, but you still might be feeling like you don't quite belong there...until something deeper happens that makes you feel connected intimately and personally with one or more members of the congregation.
What exactly can change the feeling of being a stranger and turn it into the feeling of being appreciated, cared about deeply, and included consistently?
ONE SUCCESSFUL WAY TO BECOME LESS ISOLATED
At Ahavat Torah Congregation in Brentwood, there are numerous ways that this not-very-large but extremely-warm-and-welcoming group of people break down the barriers and make it possible for intimacy and connection to occur. Several members of the congregation will volunteer to host a variety of small but lively Shabbat dinners at their homes. Numerous members and non-members will be signing up and joining them as welcomed guests to enjoy the candles, the food, the conversations, and the intimacy of an at-home Shabbat gathering.
But how does it work? How in a large spread-out city like Los Angeles and in a medium-sized congregation like Ahavat Torah can the feeling of isolation and distance get transformed into a beautiful and memorable feeling of enjoying Shabbat with 6 or 10 or 14 people in a warm and welcoming home-cooked setting?
THE EXQUISITE LOGISTICS
The idea of creating at-home Shabbat dinners for members and non-members to enjoy in small groups began soon after Ahavat Torah formed 8 years ago. Arlene Rosenblatt started the tradition and she recalls, "It just seemed to be consistent with who we are. That we want to be able to get to know each other better and care about one another in a more personal way than you find at many larger temples." Arlene also wanted to make sure that the gatherings help people get to know men, women and families who live not too far from one another so that friendships and closeness could naturally develop.
Then for several years, Judy Weintraub helped to organize these Shabbat circles of warmth and celebration at various homes. Two or three times a year she would put out the word that several people were opening up their homes for honored guests to join them for a Shabbat gathering. Then during the candles, the songs, the conversations, and the sense of holiness, some friendships would begin or deepen, and many of the feelings of distance or isolation would dissolve away for those who were relatively new to the congregation or who had not yet found the chance to connect intimately with other participants from the congregation.
MEMORIES AND NEW EXPERIENCES
Many members of Ahavat Torah Congregation can recall the wonderful feeling of being at the Shabbat dinners hosted by Gene, Marvin, and Kimball Marsh for many years at their home in the Fairfax district. At these warm and thought-provoking gatherings, the food, the songs, the conversations, and the sense of extended family created soulful memories that numerous congregants will never forget.
THE SOONER THE BETTER
Most of all, I hope you have a joyous and memorable Shabbat experience on an upcoming Friday night (watch the newsletter for details) and that it becomes the beginning (or the deepening) of some nourishing friendships.