Entering the multi-purpose room at the Sandler Family Campus on the evening of Feb. 7, there was little indication that a lesson was being taught by the smiling man at the door who was extending his hand and offering a personal, “Welcome. It’s so good to see you.”
The friendly greeter was Ron Wolfson, an expert on synagogue and Jewish community transformation, a professor at the American Jewish University, and the author of many books, including The Spirituality of Welcoming.
By taking a few seconds to meet the guests who had come to hear him speak at the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater’s presentation of Building Good Tents: Envisioning the Synagogues and Communities of the Future, Wolfson was actively demonstrating a key concept he would emphasize repeatedly over the next hour.
For him, the small effort of a meaningful “hello” or a “Shabbat Shalom” is critical to the survival of a strong Jewish community.
“It’s all about relationships,” Wolfson says. “And it starts with giving a warm welcome that’s genuine. It can’t be fake. Our synagogues and communities of the future will thrive if we can create communities of relationships…and instill a sense of belonging, a sense of community, a sense of learning, a sense of blessing.
“We need to move from transactional Judaism to relational Judaism—and answer the questions of how to become more welcoming to people who are not yet involved and how to deepen the engagement of the people we already have. It’s a challenge, but it can be done.”
Wolfson has built a strong reputation as a dynamic speaker, effective teacher and insightful commentator, and his books are used as guides by many in leadership positions.
His legion of admirers grew that night. Wolfson held the audience’s attention and fortified his message via a constantly changing means of delivery: with a conversational approach that invited audience commentary, by leading a participatory rendition and discussion of the song Mah Tovu, through movement during a breakaway parashat (Torah) study session, and in the sharing of personal, often funny, stories.
“He’s so engaging that you can’t help but sit at the edge of your seat to hear what he has to say,” says Gary Tabakin, a vice-president of Temple Emanuel who was instrumental in bringing Wolfson to Tidewater. “Some of what he talks about are just common sense things that either we don’t realize are important or we don’t know how to go about changing, and now we have a place to start. It was great to see representatives from every synagogue here, and it supports the idea of the greater Jewish community working together that Ron emphasizes.”
The presentation began a weekend of community Wolfson appearances, funded and supported by the UJFT, the Synagogue- Federation Partnership of the Tidewater Jewish Community, Temple Emanuel, Congregation Beth El, Ohef Sholom Temple and the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life.
The following Friday night and Saturday morning, Wolfson was the featured guest at Temple Emanuel’s annual Rabbi Pincus Forum in Virginia Beach. On Saturday night, he spoke at Congregation Beth El in Norfolk as part of the Milton Kramer Scholar-in-Residence. And on Sunday, as part of the Synagogue-Federation Partnership, he spoke privately to the leaders of area synagogues at Ohef Sholom Temple in Norfolk.
by Laine M. Rutherford