Hospitality In the Face of Fear


As we mourn the victims of a massacre in The Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Rabbi Ilana Foss shares a unique perspective on our moral obligation in tragedy’s wake.

R. Ilana Foss:

What I find most painful and frightening about Saturday’s massacre in the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue is how ordinary the synagogue is.

As a rabbi, as someone who attends Shabbat (Sabbath) morning services, and as someone who grew up attending services, I know that in every shul there are members who play the roles that those killed played.

There are the people who greet everyone coming into the sanctuary and those who help others find seats. There are the people who can be relied upon to arrive before the rabbi and hang out with the custodians or have a cup of (not particularly good) coffee. There are the people who show up every week, right on time and sit on the same seats week after week and when standing on the bima (pulpit) I know where to look to find a knowing smile, a look of encouragement and, of course, someone snoozing through services (because the sanctuary is an extension of their home and it is a comfortable place to fall asleep).

In all the communities I have been part of, as a congregant and as a rabbi, I know the people who play those roles – when they arrive, where they sit, how they help out. The shooting could have happened in any synagogue to any of them. Not only does every synagogue (and I’d venture to say, most houses of worship) have people in those roles but most of them, at least those of which I have been a part, welcome first and ask questions later.

There are plenty of times where total strangers walk through the door and you smile, offer them a prayer book and say hello. Then, maybe at kiddush (post-service collation) you ask who they are or where they are visiting from. Synagogues welcome strangers. It is an essential part of their nature, and the role they play in Jewish communal life. It is also part of the role they play in American life.

I fear that part of the fallout from this is that people will be less likely to welcome others, to be wary of those strangers and perhaps not offer them warm words of welcome. We must not let that be the result. While it will be ever so much harder to find ways to be spontaneously hospitable to those who walk into community doors, that is the reason Jews must keep doing so.

May the memories of the martyred synagogue members be for a blessing. May this be a call for the courage to embrace welcoming and hospitality in the face of fear.

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