The Power of Small Talk

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After watching people at many synagogue gatherings over the years, I am convinced that one reason some members don’t talk to newcomers is that they never learned how to “small talk.” Small talk is an important skill when I am interested in building my community. Small talk is also a way to fulfill the mitzvot of hospitality and kindness, by making someone comfortable at my synagogue or gathering.

The next time you see someone standing alone at the oneg Shabbat (cookies, etc after services), here are some tips.

1. BEGIN WITH COMMON GROUND. You are looking to connect with another person. Go for the things you have in common, rather than the differences. “Wow, long line for the coffee! By the way, I’m Ruth.” is not great literature, but the long coffee line is something you have in common. The room, the weather, the service you both attended, the speaker – all are potential opening moves. Avoid divisive topics (politics, for instance) and don’t focus on ways the newcomer is different.  An alternative, if you can’t think of a common ground, is simply to say, “Hi, I’m Ruth – have we met?”

2. VOLUNTEER ONE PIECE OF INFO. “I teach Intro to Judaism classes in Berkeley,” is a simple beginning, but it gives them a comforting advantage: they know my name and something about me. It also gives them an easy comeback, “Hi, Ruth, I’m Joe and I am visiting from Cleveland.” This is not the time for major autobiography, though – offer one or two conversational “hooks” and then settle in to listen and find out who they are.

3. GO SLOW! Repeat the person’s name and ask for more about the thing he told you: “Nice to meet you, Joe! What brings you to my town?” Or you can share more about yourself if you see common ground: “Joe, my grandfather grew up in Cleveland! The family name was Levi, and they were members at the Temple in Cleveland.” Chat a bit, pay attention. Listening is more important than talking. How long you chat depends on the two of you: if it’s interesting and comfortable, you might chat a while. If you can’t seem to connect with this person, then move on to Step 4:

4. MAKE SURE THEY MEET OTHER PEOPLE. Introduce them to someone else, providing one piece of information about them if possible. This gives you another opportunity to use the newcomer’s name, which increases the chance you’ll remember it: “Joe, I’d like you to meet Adam. Adam sings in the choir. Adam, Joe is visiting from Cleveland.” It also assures that the newcomer will  meet more than one person there. If they let you know they are looking for a synagogue, you may want to introduce them to the rabbi, the membership chair, or someone on the temple board.

5. MAKE YOUR EXIT. One graceful way to move away from another person is by saying, “It was nice to meet you, Joe. I need to…” and then fill the blank with  anything from “Get some water” to “leave early this evening” or “talk with someone.” The idea is to let them know that you enjoyed meeting them, and that something is now drawing you regretfully away. If you can leave them with someone new to talk to, that’s the best scenario.

For the newcomer, all the same rules apply: Start with the setting, introduce yourself (“coming out” as a visitor or newbie), pay attention and repeat names, and look for common conversational ground. If there’s something you want to know, ask.

Most congregations advertise themselves as “welcoming.” To be truly welcoming, though, a congregation needs to acknowledge and engage the people who come in the door. That takes small talk, the social skill that is not really so small.

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Never Say This When You Welcome a Visitor!

Conversation

You may or may not be able to tell from my “voice” here on the blog, but my speaking voice includes a Southern accent. I have lived in California for over 25 years, but my Tennessee accent remains. It fades in and out, depending on my emotions and my energy level, but it’s always there.

When I first moved west, I tried to get rid of it. I was making fair progress, when an acquaintance said, “I’m SO glad that you are losing that ignorant-sounding accent.” I replied in my best Southern-lady voice, “Martin, you have just guaranteed that I will go to my GRAVE with this ignorant-sounding accent.”  In that moment, I decided that I’d rather be myself, southern accent and all.

Odd cultural fact: I get more comments about my accent from other Jews than from any other group of people I encounter. They comment in different ways: they ask where I’m from, or say that they “love the cute twang,” or jokingly speak to me with an exaggerated “Beverly Hillbillies” sort of accent. I used to shrug it off; lately I’ve come to realize that regardless of the intent behind them, all are “micro-aggressions:” subtle ways of reminding me that I’m an outsider.

As I became more conscious of these micro-aggressions, I also began to notice the ways in which we inflict them on many other people. Well-meaning members of a congregation welcome the visitor in a wheelchair by talking about wheelchairs.  If a visitor has an unusual accent, they are questioned about it. Dark-skinned visitors are quizzed for their story: not born Jewish, right? All of this is done with the idea that it is friendly, but it’s counterproductive. Commenting on differences, even in a “friendly” way, is not a friendly act. I realized to my chagrin that I, too, had the habit of making small talk out of the very things that would make a person feel least at home.

There have been times and places when Jews had good reason to be nervous about strangers, but 21st century America isn’t one of them. If we want to be truly welcoming of newcomers, if we want them to come back and be a part of our community, we need to unlearn this nervous habit.

The best way I’ve found to unlearn it is summarized in three words: Seek Common Ground. Instead of commenting on the things that make a person different, I look for topics that we have in common. I can start with that old chestnut, the weather (we do have it in common, after all) or with a shared experience, “I enjoyed the music tonight, what did you think of it?” but the important thing is that it is something shared.

Shared experience is what binds a community together. By offering another person a conversation about what we have in common, I build my community. We can still disagree about plenty of things, but by looking for the common ground, we give them the most basic message of welcome: we assume that they’re “one of us.”

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What to Wear to Synagogue?

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One of the most common searches that brings people to this blog is some version of “what to wear:” what to wear to a bar mitzvah, what to wear to an Orthodox service, what to wear to a Jewish funeral, what to wear to a bris. That’s a difficult question to answer, given that a reader might be anywhere and standards differ depending on where you live. I’m in California, where dress is extremely casual. I grew up in the American South East, where dress tends to be more formal. I’ve lived in Israel, where I have rarely seen a man wearing a tie at any event, no matter how formal, and … well, you get the idea. Given the reach of the Internet, the question is unanswerable as asked.

However, I can offer you some guidelines:

1. What do people wear to church where you live? That is a reasonable guide for most synagogues other than Orthodox synagogues.

2. Neither men nor women will go wrong covering their heads in a synagogue, but it will not be required in most Reform synagogues. Conservative synagogues are likely to require it for men and recommend it for women. When in doubt, ask ahead or, if you get there and realize everyone else has their head covered, ask an usher for help. Synagogues where head covering is the norm will almost always have some for guests to borrow. At bar and bat mitzvah services, kippot [yarmulkes or skull caps] are often given away as souvenirs with the name of the bar mitzvah and the date inscribed inside.

3. For an event at an Orthodox synagogue, unless you have specific info to the contrary, men and women both should cover all bare skin: no shorts, no short skirts, no tight clothing, either. Generally speaking, when I attend services or events at an Orthodox shul, I wear a knee-length or longer skirt with a top or jacket that covers elbows and collarbones. Men should cover their heads with a kippah (usually there is a supply of them at the door) and it’s a safe bet for women to wear a hat. Yes, you will look like a visitor but that’s fine, you will look like a visitor who cares about the sensibilities of the community.

4. Funerals are uniformly the most solemn occasions in any location. Women: dress soberly,with absolutely no “bling” and very little skin on display. Black is always a safe choice. If you are going to the cemetery, wear sensible shoes even if they look clunky with your outfit; cemetery grass is thick and lush. If all your outfits are lowcut or sleeveless, wear a shawl or jacket to cover up. Men: if you have a suit and tie, wear it. If you don’t, come as close as you can.

5. For Bar and Bat Mitzvah services, look at the invitation. If it specifies dress, believe them. If your daughter is insisting that everyone else is wearing miniskirts and strapless bustiers to the bat mitzvah service, phone either the synagogue office or the mother of the bar mitzvah (WELL ahead of the big day) and ask about dress codes. The same applies if your son is adamant about jeans and a tee shirt. These services are solemn events, and going to them dressed like you’re going to a disco is disrespectful to the congregation and potentially an embarrassment to the family.

The party afterwards may be a whole different matter, with a separate dress code. Again, if you have questions, call the family well ahead of time.

6. Your clothing need not be expensive to be appropriate for any synagogue event. Member families at any synagogue are like most families in your community: they come from all income brackets. The main thing is to be clean, tidy, and modest in your dress.

 Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by LizMarie_AK

A Visit to Bugville

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Today I did something different. I drove up to Chico, CA and I visited Bugville.

My friend has wanted a VW bug for a long time, and she found the right car online. It is a bright red 1972 SuperBeetle with all-new brakes, transmission, and a mostly pristine exterior. It was waiting for her at an outfit up here in Chico that specializes in “Air Cooled Rides:” Late Night Air Cooled.  We spent a chunk of the afternoon discovering a whole subculture of folks who love those little rides.  Do not call them “cars.” They are not “cars.” They are “bugs” or “vans” or “air cooled rides.” They are wonders of engineering, pieces of art. They are air-cooled rides.

The proprietor spent a long time with her, teaching her the fine points of caring for her bug. He did it before he accepted her cash. I have a feeling that had she not been appreciative of the wonders of Bugville, he’d have politely, kindly, sent us away bugless. She passed muster, and now the SuperBeetle is hers. She’s still thinking about its name.

Why am I babbling about this in a Jewish context? Because today I was like the person who visits a synagogue for the very first time.  There was terminology (NOT “cars!” NEVER “cars!”) Lots of talk about “air-cooled” and “carburetors” and “rpms” and shifting and kinds of oil and gasoline and goodness knows what else.  I was clueless. I just smiled a lot. Once I looked into an engine and thought, wow, yeah, engine. Air-cooled, yeah.

I remember that’s exactly how I felt on my first trip to a synagogue: lost. It was good for me to feel that feeling again, to remember how it feels to be a complete beginner in a culture with its own language and codes and jargon.

If you are a newcomer to Bugville, or to synagogue, it’s OK to be new. The owner of All Night Air Cooled was glad we were there, glad to tell us all about the wonders of his world. It was OK that we didn’t know the jargon yet, that we weren’t sure where to sit. It felt weird, because no one likes to feel so completely out of it. But if you hang in there a while, you’ll begin to pick up the lingo. (See what I learned, in just an afternoon? Air-cooled! Super Beetle! Yay!) You’ll develop your own tastes. You’ll make friends, you’ll become attached, and before long, you know, you’ll be one of the regulars gazing into the engine, nodding knowingly. The next newcomer will see you and think, gee, she knows this stuff. She belongs.

How to Succeed at Congregational Life: Ten Tips

Everyone wants to feel they have a place at the table.
Everyone wants to feel they have a place at the table.

So, you’ve decided to dive in to Jewish life and find yourself a congregation. You find one not too far from home, and it looks like it might be a fit. Or maybe you’ve found the only synagogue in 100 miles, and whether it’s a fit or not, that’s what you’ve got.  A synagogue community over about 150 people is often a community of communities: an umbrella under which several different groups get together for smaller things, and then all come together for big stuff like High Holiday services. If you only go to the big stuff, you’ll never get to know anyone. These tips can help you integrate into your own synagogue community (and it’s never too late to try them.)

ATTEND. The single most important thing you can do to succeed at synagogue life is to show up!  Find one regular event at the synagogue and commit yourself to being there regularly – say, 75% of the time – for a decent block of time. If it’s a weekly event, give yourself three months.  It could be Friday night services, or Torah study, or an affinity group like Seniors, morning minyan or choir – but if you are a regular, you will make your own circle of friends and feel “at home.”

BE FLEXIBLE. Connecting with people different from yourself but with whom you have shared values can be fun and useful. Be open to connection with people outside your age bracket / income bracket / level of education / profession / marital status. Those friends will broaden your point of view, and they know stuff you don’t. If you don’t know what to talk about at first, talk about the activity at hand: Torah study, the speaker, Scrabble, etc.

ASK FOR ADVICE. The rabbi, the administrator (if there is one) and people on the temple board are good sources of information about finding a likely group to help you settle in. If they don’t have a group for “single thirty-somethings who love to cook” (or whatever your demographic) ask, “What’s the friendliest group around here?”

MAKE AN APPOINTMENT. It’s a great idea to make a “getting to know you” appointment with temple staff or clergy. Trying to build a relationship with them at the coffee hour after services is like trying to play cards in the middle of a tornado.

VOLUNTEER.  I have made some of my firmest friends around shul when I volunteered to be part of the group to clean up after an event. Set up for events often brings out anxieties, but at clean up time, everyone is glad  you are there.

BE PROACTIVE. If I am at a temple event and I feel like a wallflower, I look for other wallflowers and chat them up. I have met some wonderful people that way, and gotten to know people from all parts of the synagogue.

BE POSITIVE. We’re Jews, and Jews kvetch. But unless you want to be someone people avoid, try to balance your complaints with compliments. Longtime members are proud of their synagogue. Staff work hard. If someone messes up, of course you let them know. But if you also tell them  what they did right, they will be more able to hear  your excellent observations.

DON’T BE INTIMIDATED. As a fat disabled lesbian with a Southern accent, I have had people say plenty of dumb and/or annoying things to me at synagogue. Out of town, in an environment where I will never see those people again, I generally roll my eyes and move along. But in my congregation, I find that what works best for me is to be willing to do a little education.  I let people know what my limits are: “I don’t like to discuss my health with anyone but my doctor, thanks,” or “You know, Abe, I like you a lot, but I really hate it when anyone imitates my accent.” I tell people what I need: “I can’t take the stairs. Join me in the elevator?” When someone drags out the old saw, “My, you don’t look Jewish!” I just smile pleasantly and say, “This is what Jewish looks like in the 21st century.” When all else fails, my default line is, “Can we talk about something else?”

GIVE EVERYONE THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT. If someone says something stupid, odds are they didn’t stay up all night trying to figure out the best way to insult you.  If on the other hand, someone is consistently offensive or annoying, maybe you’re just oil and water. In any community of size, there are going to be a few people with whom you just don’t mix easily.  Whatever you do, beware the temptation to bond with others via gossip and mean talk about others. That stuff will leave you more isolated, not less.

BE A MEMBER, NOT A CONSUMER. After you’ve decided this is the shul for you, let “Be a member, not a consumer” be your guide. Keep your commitments to other synagogue members and staff. Treat people like you are going to see them again. If there’s a program or service you want, ask for it, but be willing to contribute to making it happen.

The staff are not the synagogue. The building is not the synagogue. The synagogue is You.

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Choosing Synagogue Membership

A synagogue is not just a building.
A synagogue is not just a building.

I have to be honest about my bias on this topic.  One of the fixed items in our household budget is synagogue membership. Our children are grown. We don’t need religious school. No one is studying for a bar mitzvah. But to borrow a phrase from Moses – excuse me, Charlton Heston! – I’ll let go of my synagogue membership when they take it out of my cold, dead hands.

Why is synagogue membership important to me? Let me count the pros:

1. I have a rabbi (actually, two rabbis) on call should we need them. I like knowing that if I have a big decision to make, there’s someone grounded in the tradition with whom I can talk it through. I like knowing that if something bad happens, all members of my family will be free to call on the rabbi for support and guidance.  I don’t want to be looking for a rabbi at a crisis in my life.

2. I have a community. I don’t love everything about that community, or everyone in that community, but it is my community, people who know who I am and with whom I navigate life. If I am looking for a plumber, or a doctor, or a real estate agent, everyone has a recommendation. If I have something to celebrate, they will care. If something bad happens, they’ll care. I am not anonymous there.

3. I benefit from the Caring Community, or Committee, or whatever it is we’re calling it now. When my kids were still in school, and I fell and smashed my knee, someone picked up my kids from the bus, someone brought dinner, and someone was on the other end of the phone to help me figure out how I was going to deal with life while my leg was immobilized. As an aging woman with some disabilities, this is not a small thing.

4. I have somewhere to develop and use my talents as a volunteer. This goes for small stuff, like bringing food to potlucks, and to larger things as well. Currently I don’t work for a congregation, but I volunteer some of my professional skills for my congregation. If I had the time, I could sing in the choir (I wish I had the time.) I get appreciation for the things I do from time to time, and that’s nice too. I also learn about social justice action opportunities, and have a ready-made group of people with whom to pursue those.

5. I have a minyan with whom to pray. Jews engage in private prayer, but there are some kinds of prayer for which we need a minyan of at least ten Jewish adults.

6. I have people with whom to learn. There is no substitute for a community when doing Jewish learning: it just does not work alone. And even though I went to rabbinical school, I still have lots to learn: learning is a lifelong activity for a Jew.

7. When there is truly a crisis, I have a community and a rabbi. Much of my work is with unaffiliated Jews, and I have to tell you that that more than anything has convinced me of the benefits of belonging. I do my best for families who are grieving, but they’ve turned to me because someone gave them my name after disaster struck. I’m essentially a nice stranger with a set of skills they need. How much better it would be for them to have a rabbi they know, that they can call the minute trouble looms, and who already knows their story? That is what I want for myself and my family.

8. I know that by supporting this synagogue, I am contributing to the future of Judaism in my area. Even after my kids are grown, children will be learning about Judaism at that synagogue. Couples will get married. Funerals will be held. Celebrations will happen, holidays and fasts will be observed. By being a part of a synagogue, I keep Judaism going.

Now for the “cons” of synagogue membership:

1. Yes, it costs money. Having that rabbi on call, and a secretary and whatever else (a building, a janitor, teachers, etc) costs a lot of money. If money is tight, then you have two options: talk with the synagogue about reduced rates, or opt not to belong for now.

2. As I said above, not everyone at my congregation is my best friend. Sometimes there is conflict. There are some people who drive me a little nuts. I probably drive them a little nuts, too. Comes with the territory. As the old joke goes, sometimes it is easier to love Judaism than it is to love real live Jews.

3. Yes, they bug me to give and to do stuff. Linda and I get periodic appeals for financial and volunteer participation. I also feel free to say “no” when I really can’t or don’t want to do something.

4. I don’t agree with the way everything is done by the synagogue. Policy is up to the board, and they call those shots. I get to state my opinion, but I am not the boss. If it’s the only synagogue in town and the disagreement is about something serious, then maybe it isn’t worth it. For example, I am not sure I could be a happy member of a congregation that wanted me to be closeted, or that did not count women for a minyan.

5. Paying dues is just the beginning. To really get the benefits of synagogue membership, you have to invest time and heart.

Synagogue membership is not cheap. It costs money, time, and heart. Sometimes it is aggravating. But for me, it’s worth it.

A Beginner’s Guide to the Torah Scroll

Hakhnasat Sefer Torah
(Photo credit: Avital Pinnick)

Ten facts about Torah scrolls:

1. The proper Hebrew name for a Torah scroll is Sefer Torah, a book of Torah. It’s pronounced “SAY-fehr toe-RAH,” or in the Yiddish/Ashkenazic pronunciation, “SAY-fehr TOE-rah.” It means “book of Torah.”

2. A sefer Torah contains exactly 304,805 Hebrew letters in a special script. There are no vowels and no punctuation. One must study in order to be able to read or chant from the sefer Torah.

English: Hebrew Bible text as written in a Jew...
Numbers 10:35 in a sefer Torah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3. It takes a sofer (SOH-fehr) (specially trained scribe) approximately 18 months to produce a sefer Torah. It takes so long because every letter is written by hand, every detail has to be checked and rechecked, and there are special rules for writing the name of God. As a result of this care, the text has been preserved over the centuries.

4. The sofer writes the text in a special ink on parchment produced from the skin of a kosher animal. If he or she makes a mistake on an ordinary word, they scrape the word off the parchment with a knife and continue. If they make a mistake writing the name of God, that entire panel must be cut from the scroll and a new panel sewn in in its place.

5. A typical sefer Torah weighs 20-25 pounds, although some are as heavy as 50 pounds. A sefer Torah is both massive and fragile.

6. Reading from a sefer Torah is a public act, normally performed on Monday mornings, Thursday mornings, Shabbat and holidays. The text may be read or chanted to a traditional melody called trop. It is always translated, or a translation is provided, for all who do not understand the Biblical Hebrew.

7. We carry the sefer Torah around during the Torah reading service in a ceremony called Hakafah, (hah-kah-FAH). You may see people reaching out to touch the torah with the fringes on their prayer shawls, or with their prayer books, and then kissing the object that touched the Torah. We do this out of reverence for what the Torah represents, thousands of years of tradition, learning, and revelation. We do not worship the Torah scroll.

8. During the Torah service, and at other times, we stand when the sefer Torah is out of its cabinet, often referred to as the Ark or the Aron. We always face the sefer Torah if possible, so during Hakafah we turn to follow its path around the room.

9. On Simchat Torah, (“Joy of the Torah”) a fall holiday, we celebrate finishing and restarting the yearly reading of the Torah with singing and dancing, often with the sefer Torah itself.

10. Every synagogue has customs and rules about who may handle a sefer Torah. Generally speaking, only a person who qualifies as a member of a minyan may hold a sefer Torah. When in doubt about the custom of a particular synagogue, ask the rabbi.