This year, the sermon made me cry. It was the second day of Rosh Hashanah, and Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold was speaking to the congregation from the pulpit of Shaar Hashomayim.
Finegold recounted the advice of her high school drama teacher, advice that had stayed with her all these years: play to the back of the room, her teacher had said. From those words, Maharat Finegold wove an entire sermon about the imperative of inclusion. About the need to reach out to everyone in our community, not just those sitting in the front rows.
As she spoke, I thought of the many conversations I’d had with people of different ages, genders and backgrounds – the common denominator being that each had felt either excluded from, or unseen by the Montreal Jewish community… from this incredibly warm, connected, and generous community that I call “home”.
From women who had emigrated to Montreal years ago and raised their families here, I heard stories of not fitting in; of feeling that despite repeated efforts to join various communal groups or committees, our Jewish community really wasn’t all that interested in them.
From out-of-town McGill University students, I heard that they hadn’t met a single “Montreal Jew” in their entire 4-year undergraduate experience. Despite having attended many Hillel and Chabad events on campus, they still had not made any Jewish friends from Montreal.
From people who were born and raised here, I heard that they, too, had never found their place in our Jewish community.
Maharat Finegold remembers well the people who reached out to her when she first arrived in Montreal some 5 years ago. She recalls with poignancy the little gestures of kindness that likely meant little to those who offered them, but to the newcomer, meant the world.
And she got me thinking about the people who may be walking around our community feeling unseen, or worse – unwelcome; about whether our tight-knit Montreal Jewish community, which is such a great force for good, can sometimes feel too tight to allow others in.
Montreal is unique in North America in that so many of us went to school and then made our adult lives here. Surrounded by family and childhood friends and acquaintances, we may not feel the need to expand our existing social circles. And let’s face it, when you factor in work, volunteering, raising a family, caring for aging parents, who has the time to invite more people in?
And yet, there are many stories of community members who do just that; who open their homes and their hearts to guests and newcomers almost instinctively.
Community members have embraced our Israeli shlichim, educators Shanie and Alon Dotan, and the shinshinim they lead – the 18-year old Israelis doing a year of pre-army civil service in Montreal interacting with and educating us in our schools, shuls and camps. These shinshinim are billeted with Montreal families, who host our Israeli guests for months at a time, becoming virtually second families to them and creating bonds that will last a lifetime. And our shinshinim recount that they enjoy invitations of all kinds well beyond the generosity extended by their host families.
Just as we welcomed Argentinian newcomers before them, we have stepped up through our Initiative France
Montréal to welcome French newcomers, helping them to integrate into Montreal society and to find their place in our Jewish community. I think it can safely be said that our Jewish community has a proud history of heeding the biblical admonition to treat the stranger as ourselves, for we were strangers in Egypt.
And of course, there are strategies that can be deployed to make our institutions more inclusive. Recognizing the changing face of our Jewish community, and thanks to your continued support of our annual Combined Jewish Appeal campaign, Federation CJA is investing in initiatives to reach Jews of all backgrounds and affiliations, and to respond differentially to the various needs they have and challenges they face. And our Centennial year of activities was designed intentionally for broad reach and maximum inclusivity.
But in the end, there is no substitute for individual action: for inviting a newcomer to Shabbat dinner or to a holiday meal; for noticing the person standing or sitting alone at an event, and inviting her to join you or introducing him to others; for simply smiling at a parent you see daily at your child’s school but who does not seem to know many other parents.
After spending an entire high school year eating her lunch alone, one California teenager created an app called “Sit with Us”, enabling students to privately find people to sit with in the cafeteria. How brilliant, but how sad that an app was necessary to fight social exclusion.
The Maharat’s sermon really struck a chord with me. Maybe because I lived away for 15 years and know what it feels like to be an outsider. Maybe because my re-entry to Montreal was a little tougher than I’d anticipated. Maybe because I heard Finegold’s words during the Days of Awe – Yamim Noraim – when I am naturally more reflective, resolving to do better in the year ahead.
By the time you read this, the New Year will have passed. I hope that it will be a sweet year for us all: filled with good health, personal and professional fulfilment, and the mindfulness to reach out and touch someone new in our orbit.
Together, we can make the Montreal Jewish community feel just a little more welcoming.