Welcoming the stranger

By Lee Shwimmer

Passover is on the horizon. Many of us will soon gather around the Seder table to immerse ourselves in the Haggadah — its familiar pattern and prayers, stories and wisdom. These evenings remind us of the shared experience of our people wherein we find ourselves living somewhere foreign. That sense of being an outsider living in unfamiliar, and even perhaps unfriendly, surroundings is a piece of our collective, emotional DNA.

Among other ideas, we will again hear about our obligation to welcome the stranger. It is said that the Torah exhorts us no fewer than 36 times regarding how we are to treat outsiders — more often even than the instructions regarding Shabbat. Passover has the power to reawaken our subconscious in a personal “been-there-done-that” sort of way. Retelling this story nurtures our ability to cultivate our sense of empathy that we then endeavor to pass on to the next generation.

I have always related to this idea in a very personal way. I was born in San Diego, California. Most of the people there came from elsewhere, including my husband and both of my parents. Some came for the weather. Some came during military service. And many never left. I never realized that growing new relationships is just part of the culture in sunny Southern California. That is, until I myself became a stranger in a new land — a Texas greenhorn.

So many that I have met here can proudly claim that their families have lived here for generations. They have friends from high school and from the schools their once-small children attended. I was surprised, as I perused various websites for new doctors, by the large number of practitioners who trained in Dallas or Texas. Not at all like those in my hometown.

As a Jew, I love the idea that I have the “right of return” to Israel, even having never lived there myself. With ancestors buried in the Hebrew cemetery in Corsicana, I have reimagined my immigration from California to Texas as a right of return of sorts — a Texas aliyah.

But I never really understood the plethora of details attendant with uprooting oneself at the age of 65 and finding a new promised land. For example, it has taken time and has been no easy task to begin growing new relationships here. It is a process that can’t be rushed. As I am someone who has grown accustomed to conveniences like microwaves and smartphones, apparently my patience muscle has atrophied a bit.

As the dust begins to settle, I do look forward to a time when I can reach out with some of my newly acquired Texan slang and extend a much-needed “howdy” and a hand. I have recently joined the membership committee at my new shul because I don’t want to be “all hat and no cattle” with this. Plus, I think I have some understanding about what is needed by a fellow greenhorn.

In these times where we all find some measure of healing by our efforts to both strengthen and multiply our connections to our worldwide Jewish family, I hope you will join me in warming up the way we welcome others.

Below is my list of 18 ideas for welcoming the strangers in your midst:

1. Invite someone to join your family for Shabbat dinner.

2. Invite them to meet you for tea or coffee.

3. Ask questions when you meet people: hobbies and activities, reasons for moving, favorite books or TV shows.

4. Consider to whom you might introduce them — folks who share the same interests.

5. Ask if they need referrals: medical specialists, repair people, favorite dry cleaner/tailor, attorney and so forth.

6. Meet for a Dutch-treat meal and introduce them to one of your favorite restaurants.

7. Introduce them to a local attraction or an organization by planning an adventure together: art museum, Arboretum, special drive or just a walk.

8. Call to chat and catch up. Ask about how they are adjusting. Inquire about what’s good/challenging/confusing as of late.

9. Invite them to join one of your clubs: book club, mah jongg, cycling, history.

10. Plan to attend a local event together: fundraising, politics, art opening, lecture, play.

11. If you are a regular somewhere and see someone who isn’t, make a point of introducing yourself and learn their name. Say hello to them by name if you see them again. Consider inviting them to sit with you.

12. If you lead any sort of group, make a special effort to reach out personally to new members.

13. Help folks feel needed. Maybe you could use someone for a minyan or an extra volunteer at an event.

14. When you plan meetings or group gatherings, if appropriate, consider a brief icebreaker at the beginning, perhaps one that allows folks to interview and introduce one another.

15. Before any gathering, avoid allowing someone to stand alone. Introduce yourself and invite them into your small circle of friends who are chatting.

16. Ask: What do you miss? What do you need? How can I help?

17. Make an extra effort to respond to/acknowledge emails, texts and voicemails you receive from folks who are new.

18. Consider carrying and giving out paper calling or business cards. (What? I’m 65 and it’s what we used to do in the good ole’ days.)

Lee Shwimmer is a resident of Dallas.

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