Picture it. A man walks down Walnut Street, and sees an enormous electric Chanukah menorah atop a car driving down the road. His Jewish identity inspired, he returns home to search the Internet: What night of Chanukah is it tonight?
When someone who is disconnected from Jewish life sees a Chanukah menorah and calls a synagogue, when someone answers an advertisement in the Ritz Film Bill for a "Taste of Judaism" class, when someone walks into a synagogue for a Shabbat service for the first time in decades, that someone is knocking on the door of the community to see how we will answer.
So many of our Jewish brothers and sisters have traveled long distances away from Jewish life.
When such folks on the fringe come knocking, of course, we want to welcome them. But do we know how to? Are we awake to their needs? Do we even know when we are missing a chance to draw someone near?
The correct answer to the man who saw the menorah is not: "It's the third night of Chanukah" (even if it is, in fact, the third night). The answer lies in how we can be awake to this man's spiritual needs. How can we ensure that we don't miss the chance to draw him near?
Perhaps one correct response to the question is actually another question. When potential students call for information about "Taste of Judaism" (an introductory class designed for outsiders to the Jewish community), they speak with a trained volunteer for an intake conversation. With sensitivity, volunteers ask important, in-depth questions: Do you want to learn more about your Jewish roots? Do you want to reconnect with the Jewish community? Are you searching for a spiritual home? Do you know that we welcome all beginners?
I believe that we have much to learn from the "Taste of Judaism" intake process. Every conversation we have with someone who is brave enough to knock on our door needs to be an intake conversation. If we want to welcome disenfranchised Jews back into Jewish life, we need to create a safe place for them to learn about Judaism and themselves.
The first words of Parashat Vayigash offer sacred wisdom for our outreach to Jews who are on the fringe of the community. Vayigash elav Yehudah: "And Judah approached him."
Within the plot of the story, Judah is approaching his long lost brother, Joseph, in order to secure sustenance for the family.
With creativity and insight, a Chasidic teaching sheds a different light on the phrase, teaching that it can also be translated: "Then Judah drew near."
To whom does Judah draw near?
To himself — for only when Judah becomes his truest self can he move forward in his life and do what he needs to do. Only when Judah draws near to himself can he do his best and speak to his brother.
Judah's need to draw closer, to be his truest self, is the need of the human being. To draw nearer to oneself is the need of the disconnected Jew, the need of the interfaith family, the need of the seeker hoping to convert. The need to draw near to oneself is your need and mine.
Doors, Hearts and Souls
Many of our brothers and sisters are journeying long distances to find their way back to the Jewish community. The sacred task of outreach to the underaffiliated is ours. Our generation of American Jews can be the one that draws near to those who are far. We will do it not because there is proof that we will greatly expand the Jewish population (though we might), but because it is a mitzvah to open our doors, our hearts and our souls to them.
May we all work to provide a Jewish home for people to do their own work of Vayigash — of approaching their souls.
Rabbi Jill L. Maderer is the associate rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia.