A quick glance at almost any synagogue website will yield the familiar phrase, “we are a warm and welcoming community.” However, though many communities aspire to be open and embracing, they often fall short of the goal. In their newest collection, Warm and Welcoming: How the Jewish Community Can Become Truly Diverse and Inclusive in the 21st Century, editors Warren Hoffman and Miriam Steinberg-Egeth give us a roadmap to help all Jewish leaders, professional and lay, ensure that “warm and welcoming” is much more than lip service.
It’s clear from the first page that Hoffman and Steinberg-Egeth understand what is at stake in Jewish communities. Hoffman begins the introduction of the book with an account of attending a local synagogue and being completely ignored. Luckily for the Jewish community, this encounter did not turn him off to organized religion. However, Hoffman admits that for many, this institutional cold-shouldering can do irreparable damage.
Warm and Welcoming is full of these tragic anecdotes. Each chapter is written by a representative from groups that are often turned away from the Jewish community. One chapter speaks about the struggle of being a Jew of color, another from an interfaith family, another with different Israel politics from the mainstream, and still another a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Though each chapter is different, they all seek to answer similar questions; what gets in the way of being welcoming to this group? What is at stake when we fail at welcoming them? What practical things can a community do to be more welcoming to this group? It is in answering the latter questions that this book really shines. Even if one understands well the problems the community faces with being open and embracing, this book is a valuable resource because it provides workable and effective steps to rectify one’s community’s shortcomings.
As one reads the book, other questions begin to arise. How does a community pay for these innovations? How does one balance radical openness with a dedication to Jewish legal norms and boundaries that may run counter to them? What does warm and welcoming look like for people outside of the groups discussed in the book? Thankfully, the book lets the reader sit with those questions and begins addressing them at the end, though there is still more to be said about each. The final few chapters serve as a helpful and broad coda on the very specific chapters early on that address the demographic groups mentioned above. Steinberg-Egeth’s concluding chapter is especially helpful in this regard.
Warm and Welcoming is an invaluable resource for anyone who seeks to make meaningful change within the Jewish community. The book pays close attention to the latest statistics about Jewish engagement, especially the 2020 Pew Report. As many authors remind us, we are at an inflection point. With so many Jews questioning Jewish life, we cannot afford to create barriers to engagement. Being “warm and welcoming” isn’t just a community’s ideal, it is its actual lifeline. It is how it will survive. If one reads the book’s essays closely, discusses the authors’ recommendations, and attempts to implement them, one will find their community can grow not only more approachable but also more robust. Warm and Welcoming is the best kind of book; it is highly relevant but seeks to become obsolete if the recommendations are taken seriously.
Rabbi Marc Katz is the Rabbi at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, NJ. He is author of the book The Heart of Loneliness: How Jewish Wisdom Can Help You Cope and Find Comfort (Turner Publishing), which was chosen as a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.