I can be an annoying Rabbi.
Every week during Shabbat services, I harangue my congregants to say hello to visitors to the synagogue. I push, prod and cajole my members to greet any new faces. In my mind, a community that isn’t welcoming isn’t a true community.
Unfortunately, the art of being welcoming has been lost. We simply don’t feel comfortable making small talk with new faces. Greeting strangers is actually taboo in larger cities. Urbanites mumble a perfunctory hello to salesclerks, and don’t dare to make eye contact with strangers on the street. In row house suburbs, neighbors barely know each other’s names.
Perhaps we are too busy, or just too rude, to bother to say Hello. In our Blackberry-Laptop-Cellphone culture, we are always occupied with something or someone, except for the person standing in front of us. Human interactions have been compressed into an orderly row of e-mails. Communities are now “virtual”, anonymous megabytes masquerading as true companionship. Why say hello when you post your greetings on Facebook?
Living in a culture of remote controls and remote friendships leaves us hungry for true community. The Talmud relates that the great Rabbi, Yochanan Ben Zakai made a point of offering greetings to strangers. R. Yochanan’s greetings were not just an expression of one Rabbi’s sensitivity; they are a reflection of man’s existential need to connect with the people around him. Man, the social animal, needs to say hello to keep his soul alive. Indeed, TV shows that feature small towns like the fictional Mayberry, and friendly gathering places like the bar in Cheers, derive their popularity from our hunger for true community. The commuter who rides the bus with her face in a book and takes the elevator while averting other people’s eyes, can finally sit down, turn on the TV, and vicariously experience a much warmer place.
Israel is one place where old fashioned community values live on. The old proverb, “A stranger's just a friend you haven't met”, (immortalized in this Simpson’s episode) could be the national motto of Israel. People everywhere strike up conversations: taxi drivers, fellow restaurant patrons, people standing at bus stops. Israel feels like Mayberry, the country, a small town stretched over a small homeland.
The secret to Israel’s warmth might have to do with exile. Maybe, after being second class citizens, Jews are happy to finally belong. Maybe years of homelessness and wandering has made Jews into better hosts. Perhaps, Israel’s warm spirit is the giddy joy of a people delighted to be in a homeland they can truly call home.
On a trip to Israel last month, my wife and I happened upon a Mira, a jewelry maker with a store in downtown Jerusalem. Long after the necklace was chosen and the purchase made, we chatted with her, discussing our lives, families and values. It was another country and another language, yet nothing got lost in translation. We immediately connected, because in Israel, there are no strangers. We all come from the same shtetl, and are happy to finally be home again.