Welcoming Strangers

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk





     In San Francisco, New York, and several communities in Florida and Texas, there are “gay” or homosexual synagogues. These were founded sometime between 1975 and 2000 as a response to the rejection of homosexuals by the Jewish community and particularly by our synagogues.

     Today, these congregations include numerous heterosexual members, so that in some instances the heteros outnumber the “gays”.  This may seem a peculiar development unless we ask the heterosexuals why they joined a homosexual “shul”. The answer is that the homosexual community welcomes all Jews while the “normal” congregations do not. The heteros who have joined gay congregations found that gays, having suffered rejection themselves, are accepting of those who, although of a different sexual orientation, were also rejected by the average American synagogue. In short, it is not necessary to be homosexual to have the door slammed into our face by the Jewish world.

     Excluded from participation by Jewish professionals, including Rabbis, are the poor. Anyone who cannot pay is ipso facto excluded because Jewish life occurs in wealthy suburbs to which the poor have no access. Not only are the poor unable to afford transportation to the Jewish suburbs, they are shamed and humiliated unless they too drive a late model car, contribute at least $3,000 in membership dues, live in an ex-urb house, are members of country clubs, wear expensive clothes and make impressive bar mitzvah parties in expensive hotels.

      The poor are of course not the only Jews excluded from participation in Jewish life. That is the reason for the inclusion of heterosexuals in homosexual congregations.

       The rejection experienced by so many Jews is systemic. This means that almost all Jewish congregations are arranged in a manner which makes rejection of newcomers and even veteran members inevitable. Usually there are several levels of membership in our congregations.

     The top level of membership consists of the officers such as president, vice president, treasurer, secretary etc. These are members who have established an alternative status system in the congregation with a view of creating a self perpetuating oligarchy. This means that some of the “bosses” in our congregations use their officer status as a substitute for occupational status such as doctor, lawyer, accountant etc. Fearing that new members might contest their standing, they exclude them. This oligarchy in turn appoints board members, committee chairs and committee members, all of whom constitute the first four levels of membership.

     The fifth level of membership are the majority who attend New Year and Yom Kippur services but are not present at any other time unless they need to celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah, conduct a funeral or participate in a wedding.

       Finally there is a sixth level of membership. These are those who attend Shabbat services but are otherwise excluded from all activities of the congregation no matter their finances. These excluded members are of course expected to make financial contributions, although they are subject to having been called ugly names and are accused of “desecrating” the synagogue by their presence. 

     Examples are: A Holocaust survivor is told that she “desecrated” the Kristallnacht or Crystal Night, the day on which the Germans burned down all synagogues in Germany and Austria and invaded Jewish homes with hideous consequences. The American born “big shot” in “shul” was not there but is entitled to also call the Holocaust survivor ugly names and tell her that her presence “desecrates” the synagogue.

     Loud “community leaders” hold speeches in April at Holocaust memorials while the actual survivors are excluded. Poor Jews, whether born here or elsewhere, are kicked out of the Jewish Community Center because they cannot pay. A destitute orphan girl is prevented from making a “Xerox” copy of an application for a job by a selfish bureaucrat in a Jewish agency office. The girl literally had no money to pay for the use of a commercial copier. A refugee is told to get out of a “shul” on Yom Kippur because he cannot afford a ticket. “You have to pay to get into a show, and you have to pay to get in here,” he is told. The newcomer never knew that anyone would sell tickets to get into a Beth Hamidrosh.

     Insensitive clerks insult a widow whose husband was a big time contributor to a congregation for years. Now he is dead and she is excluded.

     It goes on and on. I have traveled this country several times from Philadelphia and New York to Anchorage, Alaska and San Diego to Florida and all the cities at the Great Lakes. I have tried to attend Sabbath services wherever I was. Each time I was given to understand that I was an unwelcome intruder.

     The result of this behavior is evident. Fifty-two percent of Jews view themselves as atheists and never attend a service. Only eight percent attend each Saturday. Our intermarriage rate is 52% and 185,000 Jews have converted to another religion.

      We are vanishing fast from the American scene. Soon there won’t be any congregations which can be used to “lord it” over other Jews.

     Yet, here and there some congregations welcome other Jews. This is particularly true of Chabad and other Torah true Jews who have no officers, boards and committee chairs. They have only Jews who pray together and seek to be of help to one another. I have no doubt  that there are, somewhere, congregations whose rabbis welcome strangers, whose members invite newcomers and whose office managers treat widows with respect and kindness. To gain all of these advantages we need to abolish the hierarchy and return to our religion, which teaches that all Jews are brethren, even the poor and newcomers.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Women & Social Change in America (2009).

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