Image: Gabi and Jojo, two toy poodles who know how to welcome a guest. Photo by Linda Burnett.
When guests arrive at my house, my little toy poodles go berserk with welcome. Jojo and Gabi knock each other over trying to greet the newcomer. They are indiscriminate in their love: if I let the person in the house, Jojo and Gabi overflow with love, be the guest a student or even from the U.S. Post Office!
I’ve gone to putting them on a leash before guests arrive, because they love guests so much that they are a bit scary to some people. I’ve tried to train them out of it, but excitement overcomes them and they can’t seem to restrain themselves. (I know. I know. I should be a better trainer.)
Back when I had a cat, it was different. Ms. Elizabeth would watch the newcomer suspiciously from a safe spot on her favorite chair. She’d cuddle up with someone she already knew, or hide under the coffee table and glare at the person who had entered HER house. If they approached her too quickly, she’d hiss something impolite. She was indiscriminate in her dislike of anyone or anything new.
People are more complicated than dogs or cats when it comes to welcoming guests. Sometimes we are very friendly, sometimes we are not. But it is worth asking ourselves when it comes to synagogue, am I more of a poodle or cat when I see someone I don’t recognize? Do I greet them enthusiastically, or do I eye them from a safe distance?
Too often we are “cats” at synagogue. We curl up next to our friends, we see the newcomers from a distance and watch them for a while. Then, when and if we greet them at all, we do it with questions: Who are you? Are you new? What brings you here? The questions say to the newcomer, just as Ms. Elizabeth used to say to strangers: “This is MY house. Explain yourself.”
Then we wonder why our synagogue has so few new members. “We need to grow!” people will say to their rabbi. “We need to grow!” the board says, looking at the budget. But come Friday night, we turn into a bunch of cats.
Let me suggest a new paradigm for welcome: The Poodle Paradigm. See a person you don’t know and run to greet them (run to do the mitzvah of welcoming the stranger) – say hello and offer them a seat or a drink or whatever’s on offer. Resist the impulse to figure them out. Tell them about yourself, make them welcome. Don’t quiz them! Instead, use your small talk skills. (If that thought makes you nervous, read The Power of Small Talk. a little post I wrote a while back on the subject. Small talk skills can change your life.) Whether they are a newbie or a longtime member you’ve never met, greeting them like a poodle will enlarge your circle and strengthen your synagogue, too.
Just don’t jump on them or sit in their laps.