How to Make Friends at Synagogue

Some advice from the sages for making friends at synagogue:

Shammai said, make your Torah study fixed, say little and do much, and receive everyone with a cheerful countenance. – Pirkei Avot, 1:15

“Make your Torah study fixed” – As Woody Allen famously said, most of life is simply showing up. If you come every week to services, people will begin to recognize you. Opportunities for small talk will increase. If you only show up for High Holy Days or a yahrzeit,  don’t be surprised if you feel like a stranger!

“Say little and do much” – If you really want to make friends at synagogue, volunteer for something. My personal favorite is “clean up crew” after an event.  The people who always do it are anxious to have help, they will want to learn your name. Generally people chat while they are clearing away tables or folding chairs. By the end of 30 minutes, you are practically guaranteed to have the beginnings of at least one synagogue friend. Usually the work is not onerous, and the next week, there will be someone smiling in your direction.

“Receive everyone with a cheerful countenance” – When you make eye contact with someone at a synagogue event, what do you do? When you have a chance to exchange a few words, what do you talk about?

I am an inveterate greeter of newcomers, and I’m always a little surprised at the number of people who begin a conversation by complaining about something. I’ll say, “Hello, I am Rabbi Adar” and they’ll counter with something like, “Why don’t you have gluten free food?” or “The music here is not very good.” (Honest to goodness, people have said those things to me.) Others walk around scowling, and it takes a bit of nerve to walk up and say hello.

If you volunteer for the clean up crew, don’t grouse about it. Just get on with it, and make cheerful conversation as you do. If you would rather do anything than clean up after other people, take a class or volunteer for a task where you can put on a “cheerful countenance.” Grumbling about what pigs people are will not make friends for you.

It’s not easy to be new. However, it is a curable condition, if we take Shammai’s advice. Show up, volunteer, and be friendly, and before you know it, you’ll have a friend or two at shul.



Shabbat Shalom: Shemot

Image: Edward Poynter painting,1867 :  Israel in Egypt  Public Domain

This week we begin to read the book of Shemot (sh-MOHT.) It is also known by its Greek name, Exodus. In many ways, this is a familiar tale, but if we read carefully, new details and puzzles will emerge from almost every chapter.

Some divrei Torah on the opening parashah of Shemot:

Blood on the Line by Rabbi David Kasher

Shiphrah, Puah, Phyllis, Rebecca, and Liz by Rabbi Laura Novak Winer

The Making of Moses by Rabbi David Kasher

The Mother Who Bore 600,000 by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

Why Pharaoh felt Threatened by Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Speaking Out, Even When it is Hard by G-dcast

Holding Out for a Hero? by Rabbi Marci Bellows

and two of my own:

Names & Deeds 

Zipporah is My Hero


Shabbat shalom!





2015 in Review

What a year!

This is my 327th post of the year, up from 288 posts last year.

There have been 121, 794  visitors to this blog in 2015.

There were 190,063 page views.

Many people sought out the blog from search engines, looking for answers to particular questions. They were, in fact, the bulk of the readers. The ten articles accessed most often:

All of these are older articles, but they seem to become more popular year after year. I’m glad: one of my goals is to provide simple answers to people who are unfamiliar with Judaism.

The ten most popular new articles this year:

I notice that many of these articles came from questions that readers sent me, or that they asked in the comments section. I appreciate your questions because they help me focus on my mission: to offer simple explanations to answer your questions.

Perhaps the most exciting development, to me, is that the Comments have really come to life this year. You left 1,868 comments – more than 1,000 more than last year! I am particularly pleased that you teach and learn from one another, and that the community that gathers here is able to disagree without rancor.

Most of all, it is a pleasure to learn with you and from you.

Thank you for a great year!

A Prayer for December 25

May all my Christian readers have a Christmas of holiness and love. And may the rest of us find a respite from our routine today.

Tonight’s full moon will be beautiful, reflecting the light of the sun. May it remind us that lights of celebration (of whichever holiday) are merely a reflection of the true light, the Source of light.

May each of us find the strength to reflect the light of heaven, bringing warmth and light to this poor world of ours. May all those who are suffering be comforted, and may each of us be a comfort to someone in need.

Love My Neighbor


One of my neighbors has the brightest, most colorful light display imaginable. Last year I found out why he does it: he lives in that house with his 90 year old mother. Years ago, everyone in that cul-de-sac had holiday lights. Now most of them are elderly and he has gradually added to his light show as theirs have become too burdensome. He enchants the whole street, including me.

This year I noticed something else: the first lights he puts up are all blue and white. It’s only after Chanukah that the red and green lights are lit. That can’t be a coincidence.

I am fond of my neighbor: he’s a good man. I smile every time I round the corner and see his light display. It isn’t my holiday, but I love to see his lights shine.

Shabbat Shalom: Vayigash

Parashat Vayigash – (pronounced – vah-yee-GOSH) is a particular favorite of mine. While there are many famous aspects of this parashah, I’m going to focus on a relatively obscure bit that has always interested me.

Joseph predicted a famine and proposed a program for surviving it in Genesis 41:33-36, when he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream. Joseph’s plan sounded painless: appoint an administrator to gather grain during the years of plenty as a reserve against the years of famine.

Now, in Genesis 47, we see what this program actually required. Once there was no bread “in all the world” (v.13) people bought grain from Pharaoh, and as a result, all the gold and silver in Egypt came into the king’s palace. The next year people had no money, so they traded their livestock to Pharaoh for food. The following year, they traded their land. That year, Joseph ordered a massive resettlement of the population. Every Egyptian family had to leave their home and move to a new location.  Radak teaches that Joseph did this so they would understand that the new homes were a gift from Pharaoh. Rashbam, however, compares his policy to that of the evil Sennerachib in 2 Kings 18.

In the final year of famine, the Egyptians became bondsmen to Pharaoh in exchange for food and seed for the coming year. So by the end of the famine, Joseph had preserved the lives of the Egyptians but at a very high price: every commoner among them was a penniless slave living on land granted by Pharaoh, grateful to pay a heavy tax.

Harold Kushner points out in Etz Chayim that a generation later, the Egyptians would take revenge on Joseph by enslaving the Hebrews. Economic policy in the ancient world, as in ours, has both short term and long term consequences.

This d’var Torah appeared in a slightly different form in the CCAR Newsletter.

What’s that Hat?

You can call it a kippah (in Hebrew) or a yarmulke (in Yiddish) but a Jew will seldom refer to it as a “skullcap” or a “beanie.” It signifies respect: respect for the One who is greater, or respect for the community in which it is a custom.

For some, it may also be a fashion statement or a small personal billboard on which to express one’s passions.