Desperately wanting to belong and to understand the prayers, he eagerly looked up when he felt a tap on his shoulder, certain that it was a messenger from Above who was sent to welcome him home and show him the way. He looked into the eyes of a gentleman who politely said, “Excuse me, you are in my seat.” Not letting this temporary setback ruin his experience, he moved back a few rows and continued his silent prayer to Hashem to guide him in his journey. Before long he felt another tap on his shoulder. Looking up in anticipation of a warm smile, perhaps an invitation to Shabbos lunch, he heard another gentleman politely say, “Excuse me, you are in my seat.” His patience was waning, but his desire to be religious was still lukewarm, and he moved to the last row in the shul in order to be certain that he was not in anyone’s seat. He closed his eyes and prayed. A few minutes later, the man in charge of the services approached him. His heart was racing; perhaps he would be invited to a seat, or better yet, maybe he would get the aliyah to the Torah that he had not received when he turned 13. The gabbai told him, kindly, that it was inappropriate to come to shul in jeans and a t-shirt on Shabbos; next time he should please dress in a suit like all the others.
He took off his yarmulka, handed it to the gabbai, and left the shul and Yiddishkeit for FORTY years. He had a tear in his eye when he said to me, “Rebbe, can you imagine that I did not have Torah or Shabbos for forty years because no one extended himself to say good Shabbos to me?” He joined a Reform temple for his three-day-a-year version of Judaism until he decided to look for meaning in his life and went to Israel. When he arrived at the Kosel, someone tapped him on the shoulder, offered him a Shabbos meal, and the rest was history.
My student wanted to come close to Hashem, but he needed to feel that he belonged somewhere. The two go hand in hand. We are the emissaries of Hashem and we are supposed to emulate His love and chesed by extending love and chesed to our brothers. The warmth and brotherhood in a close knit Jewish home, shul or community is a ray of light to observers. Many returnees to a Torah life are motivated on their journey by the warmth of a family Shabbos table, the singing and divrei Torah sans technological interruptions. They are touched at the attention given to the children and the special family atmosphere created each week. Conversely, when members of the community grow up without warmth or love in their homes and/or from teachers, the chill that is generated causes them to feel as if they don’t belong.
Many who have left claim that they can clearly blame a teacher, parent or principal for a bad experience or comment that made them feel alienated and rejected. By withholding warmth and acceptance, we risk alienating our children and creating in them a yearning for an alternative lifestyle they hope or assume would be warm and accepting. If they can’t be accepted for who they are in our world, then they will find someplace else – anywhere that will make them feel at home.
Although my shul is an eclectic group of individuals from many backgrounds, nationalities and levels of observance, I am proud that its members are warm and welcoming to each other and to newcomers. I am proud that if you come to my shul, your hand will be squeezed in a Good Shabbos shake by almost everyone, and it is common that a guest or stranger will be offered a kibbud or aliyah during his visit. In contrast, for many years a close friend has davened Friday nights in a particular shul. He davens near the front and passes about one hundred people as he walks to his seat. He tries to catch people’s eyes and say Good Shabbos, but he is not one of the “chevra” and people don’t look his way or greet him. When he does say “Good Shabbos,” he often does not get a response. When he goes on vacation for the summer, no one seems to notice that he is gone or welcomes him back upon his return. Although the Rav kindly greets him, his sense of alienation from the other hundred people is very disheartening and generates a feeling of not belonging. This friend commented that he could understand why teens or young adults who do not feel part of Klal Yisroel would not feel that this is their home.