I invariably receive many emails from many institutions. Although I am not a member of every shul in the Five Towns, except for perhaps one of them, I was around before they were instituted, and I am always happy to read about their growth and all the myriad programs they instituted to advance limud haTorah and chesed in the community.
As a native of the Five Towns, going back to the 1950s, I also want to know about every simcha and new child born in the community. Many of the names are new to me, but others ring with a familiarity that warms my heart. In addition, there are sad notices of the passing of community members, many of them people who helped my father while he struggled to establish the Torah institutions that have made the Five Towns what it is today. While my father was alive, even until half a year before his passing, there was hardly a time when I went to be menachem avel (or “pay a shivah call,” in Five Towns vernacular) that the ones who were sitting wouldn’t tell me, “Oh! Your father was just here!”
So maybe it is the Litvak engendered in me that makes those visits so significant to me. Many are not listed through Misaskim, and thus my daily dose of the morose would not satisfy that relevant information.
However, in perusing community emails, occasionally, I will see an institutional email or two that raises my eyebrows and even my ire. Obviously, the world in which I live and the communities of the Five Towns are so expansive that there will often be a program or two that I feel has no place in the community, let alone a shul, but I’m not here to spout any strong opinions on that.
Most recently, I saw one in which the subject line read: “Shul Greeter Program.”
I thought it was a wonderful idea. In my mind, I conjured up a group of fellows who daven early in order to greet newcomers who enter that particular shul. I figured that in a forever growing community, often, visitors, guests or new arrivals choose a shul, but have to find an appropriate seat or navigate their way to the shul’s protocols for whatever it may be.
But to my surprise, this was a different type of greeter program. The email explained that more than two months had passed since the onset of the program.
It was not a program to greet those who may look lost or may be unfamiliar, but rather, according to the email, “the program serves the important function of identifying anyone who looks out of place that the security guard may not be sensitive to, as well be able to alert authorities should an emergency occur on Shabbos morning.”
The message also added that the “greeter” has also been instrumental in notifying parents who are davening in shul when any child playing outside needs immediate attention.
Indeed, we live in a different world today. But I can’t help but think of the first significant stranger who came to an unfamiliar land and did not know a soul. Unlike Eliezer and even Yaakov who visited the birthplace of their family’s tradition, Moshe ran to Midian, a land where he knew no one and no one knew him.
He went where his forebears went when they were on foreign terrain. He went to a well. Indeed, all’s well that ended well, but not by chance. The maidens he saved from the sinister Midianites went home and related the episode to their father. In turn, he did not shrug his shoulders and say, “That was nice.” He asked them, “Where is he? Why did you leave him there? Call him and invite the man to our home, where he can break bread.”
Indeed, we live in a world in which our eyes must dart back and forth, worried about people who look “out of place,” but we also must be on the lookout for those who may look out of place but are really just lost.
Recently, a yungerman told me how he came to a bar mitzvah in the neighborhood that took place in a shul in which he did not know too many people. Someone actually got him a seat, and even one for his son, but the fellow sitting next to him told him, “I’m sorry, this seat is reserved for my son.”
The little boy never showed up, and the yungerman (a distinguished talmid chochom with a large family) stood next to an empty seat, until the man finally relented after laining, saying, “I guess my son is not coming, so you can sit.”
I was pondering all the chesed being sent in every direction to Eretz Yisroel. Thousands of care packages have been sent to all of the citizens and soldiers whose lives were so brutally and powerfully disrupted because of the war. Sometimes it’s easier to put chesed in a package and not have to really deal with a human interaction that might make one feel uncomfortable. Maybe if that meshulach who is collecting in a shul would be holed up in a shelter near the Dead Sea, we would be sending him packages of food and clothing, letters of chizuk, and maybe even a large check, but because he is walking around your shul with a crumpled letter whose dates are a few weeks off, suddenly we shrug our shoulders and shake our heads.
A friend of mine, who is not particularly one who chases after the poor and needy, told me how a number of years ago, his attitude changed. He met a certain meshulach (or perhaps he was collecting for his own needs), who was at a late Maariv at the Young Israel of Woodmere. The fellow had a certain air of dignity to him, yet he could have been classified as “just another meshulach.” The meshulach asked my friend about public transportation to get back to Boro Park, where he had his “stanzia.”
My friend’s heart went soft. “At this hour, you are not taking the LIRR to Atlantic Avenue and then a subway to Boro Park!” He invited the meshulach to sleep at his home, and suddenly things changed. Over a late supper, the man learned that this fellow was a tremendous talmid chochom and a former rosh yeshiva. They forged a friendship in which the “meshulach,” who got back on his feet, ended up hosting this man’s own children when they went to seminary in Israel.
In these times, when all of us are somewhat lost and out of place, we certainly need greeters to be on the lookout for dangerous characters and make sure they stay out. But we also need more greeters to bring in those who are lost and in need of a warm heart and an open seat. Just Saying.