I can be an annoying rabbi. Every Shabbat, I harangue my congregants to greet any new faces and say hello to visitors to the synagogue. To me, a community that isn’t welcoming isn’t a true community.
Unfortunately, we’ve lost the art of being welcoming. People are uncomfortable making small talk with new people. Greeting strangers is actually taboo in larger cities. Urbanites mumble a perfunctory “hi” to salesclerks and don’t dare make eye contact with others on the street. In the suburbs, neighbours barely know each other’s names.
Perhaps we’re too busy, or just too rude, to say hello. In our Blackberry-laptop-cellphone culture, we’re always occupied with anything or anyone but the person standing in front of us. Communities are now “virtual” – anonymous megabytes masquerading as true companionship. Why say hello when you can post greetings on Facebook?
But living in a culture of remote controls and remote friendships leaves us hungry for true community.
The Talmud relates that Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai made a point of offering greetings to strangers. His greetings weren’t just an expression of one rabbi’s sensitivity. They reflected 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 looks away from other people on the elevator can turn on the TV and vicariously experience a much friendlier place.
Israel is one place where community values live on. The old proverb, “Strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet,” could be its national motto. People strike up conversations everywhere – taxis, restaurants, bus stops. Israel feels like Mayberry. It’s like a small town stretched over a small homeland.
The secret to Israel’s warmth might be related to exile. Maybe, after long being second-class citizens, Jews are happy to finally belong. Maybe years of homelessness and wandering have made Jews better hosts. Perhaps Israel’s warm spirit reflects 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 Mira, a jewelry maker with a store in downtown Jerusalem. Long after a 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.