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Welcomed Despite Being ‘The Stranger’
Parsha Vayera, which we read on Shabbat a few weeks ago, begins with the account of Abraham enthusiastically welcoming three strangers into his home and undertaking to meet their needs and make them comfortable. His hospitality can be seen as a model for our covenanental responsibility for keruv — reaching out and drawing near.
Here’s the story about three of the many Abrahams in my life.
I fell in love with a wonderful man. Our families, both loving, could not have been more different. He was the son of Holocaust survivors. I had cornered the market on non-Jewish credentials. I was a card-carrying member of the Mayflower Society, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Colonial Dames. I was a practicing Episcopalian.
Sadly, I never met my husband’s mother, Rose, but I was blessed to know my father-in-law, Moishe, who was kind and gentle. He could have abhorred me; I would have understood. But, like Abraham, he embraced me warmly. He included me in his life. He loved me and I felt it. He was my first Abraham. Before he died, I promised him I would anchor his grandchildren in Judaism.
Twenty years ago, I appeared at the door of the tent: Temple Har Zion. I was the stranger. But I was determined that my children would be anchored in Judaism. I needed a Jewish education — not because I intended to convert — but because I needed to learn to be a Jewish mother.
I remember my first adult education class at Temple Har Zion — Hebrew 101. I needed to learn what my children would be learning so I could reinforce it at home. I didn’t know an aleph from a mezuzah.
When asked by the teacher, “What does your Judaism mean to you?” I replied: “I am not Jewish — but I need to learn to be a Jewish mother. I made a promise and I intend to keep it.” The teacher’s eyes welled with tears — his eyes reminded me of Moishe’s. He invited our family to his home for a wonderful, kosher, Shabbat meal. He taught me about kashrut. He encouraged and inspired me. When I learned to read Hebrew, he taught me that it was OK to pray slowly, to marinate my soul in the prayers. He was Abraham No. 2.
I immersed myself and my children in learning to be Jewish. I considered my children to be Jewish. It certainly never occurred to my children that they weren’t Jewish. Still, I was not considering conversion.
The third of the many Abrahams in my life recognized that the synagogue mail was addressed only to my husband. For years, she quietly intercepted all the outgoing mail and carefully hand-addressed each envelope — “Dr. and Mrs. Irving Herling.” I have never gotten over this simple, profound gesture of sensitivity and lovingkindness — this act of Abraham-style hospitality.
Over several years, while learning to be the best Jewish wife and mother I could be, and through the keruv — the outreach I received from the Abrahams in my life — I gradually began to identify myself as Jewish. I stood at the opening of the tent and Abraham welcomed me in. My two sons from my first marriage and I converted.
Now, years later, I lead the Keruv Outreach Committee at Har Zion Temple. In this sacred community, we are touched by the blessings and challenges that go along with having families composed of members who are of different faith traditions. How can we reduce the likelihood that anyone, Jewish or non-Jewish, will feel lost, peripheral or unwelcome in this sacred place?
We are on a journey, a multistep process, to figure out the extent to which we can, consistent with Conservative, halachically founded Judaism, be more welcoming to the supportive non-Jewish family members of our congregants.
We don’t know where the journey ends; there are no preconceived outcomes. I think of the process as the relentless pursuit of hospitality and welcoming — Abraham-style.
Jane Herling is a local attorney. This piece was adapted from a Dvar Torah she gave at her synagogue.