Through the looking glass

Through the looking glass

Can you see her? Alice is sad. Alice feels alone.

Alice recently divorced; had a miscarriage; lost her job.

Alice needs camaraderie; a network; an ear; a shoulder; an invitation to Shabbat dinner or a seder.

Can you see her? Alice is part of your sacred community.

See her. Serve her. Remember her.

Being with Alice makes you uncomfortable.

She does not want to be on the sidelines waiting for her life to (re)start. She does not want to feel like a fifth wheel. Your happiness will not make her sad. You may find her sadness contagious but that is not her fault.

So much of participation in synagogue life centers on the family. We are all very focused on children and young families. Many sacred communities are not addressing the needs of singles (or single again), those without kids (by choice, infertility, empty nest), those in crisis (due to job loss or illness). In fact, so much of the way we are structured and the way we program present barriers for those who don’t fit the cookie-cutter mode of idyllic life.

Why are we uncomfortable with those whose lives are not like our lives? Does thinking about some of these situations make us nervous? Terrified? Envious? Feelings such as, “there but for the grace of God go I” or “being around divorced people might plant a seed of possibility in my spouse’s brain,” or “we can’t invite the Schwartzes out to dinner as one of them is out of work and maybe they cannot afford it,” are more common than you think. Whether because of unspoken (or dare I say, ungenerous) feelings or simply oversight, congregants in these categories are often on the periphery.

As sacred communities, it is incumbent upon us to make a place at the table for all who choose to be a part of our synagogue society. At a recent screening of the film “Hineini: Coming out in a Jewish High School,” I was particularly struck by two things. The first was that during the film, the young woman who is the center of the movie says that she feels “invisible.” Invisible! That simple statement choked me with tears. How can a person who is at our table feel invisible? How can we permit someone to feel invisible? What is our responsibility to this person? In answer to that, I share with you the other statement that has stayed with me, which emanated from the panel discussion that followed the screening: Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood said, “Value without validation.” That simple phrase resonated so completely with me that I typed it into my Blackberry. It caused me to reassess the labels that I/we put on people. Meaning, I can value a person even if I cannot relate to (or do not approve of) some aspect of his or her life. I can value the human without validating or sharing every aspect of someone’s life.

Sometimes our innocent reason for avoiding people who make us feel uncomfortable is that we don’t know what to say or we’re afraid to say the wrong thing. I implore you not to let that be the reason you stay away from someone on the periphery. Truly, a simple, “I don’t know what to say,” “I’m thinking about you,” or “I’m happy to see you,” are enough to break the ice and start a dialogue.

Remember, our point here is that those on the periphery don’t have to fit into our activities. We may have to bend our activities to include them. For example, while you are free to invite your child-free friends to your child’s birthday party, you can also hire a babysitter and go out for child-free activities, as well.

There is an opportunity here for each of us to step out of our comfort zone (or even the doldrums), to make new friends, to try new things, to explore other activities and prospects. The added benefit is that by exploring these opportunities we also create a chance for welcoming and inclusion.

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