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Lessons From My Kentucky Derby

Lessons From My Kentucky Derby

With the Kentucky Derby in the news this weekend (not that I, a sports-phobe, will be watching), I can’t help reflecting more on my recent visit to Louisville and Congregation Keneseth Israel.

I was really struck by how different things can look from the “inside” versus the “outside” of a congregation. "Sara," a Catholic woman who attends services regularly with her Jewish husband and children, was one of the volunteers who helped plan my visit. When we first spoke over the phone, she marveled, “This is the first time they’ve ever invited me to get involved on a project!”

Towards the end of my visit, a longtime board member who had also organized the weekend’s events, told me, “I’ve really been surprised by how Sara has stepped up to the plate. She always comes with her family, but she never seemed interested in volunteering before!”

Of course I then relayed what Sara had told me, how she’d clearly been shy about volunteering without first receiving a direct invitation.

It reminded me of my own brief experience on the board of a fledgling congregation in Jackson Heights. As one of the “insiders,” I didn’t want to be overbearing or nudgy about asking for help, but then often wallowed in disappointment and self-pity because so few people from the community were volunteering. So I was surprised when, after I personally asked a graphic designer who was a regular at our Tot Shabbat to create a flyer, she not only complied but actually thanked me for asking her. Later, when I was organizing a Purim raffle, I individually recruited people to donate specific items and was pleased to discover that, not only were they not annoyed, they actually seemed to feel honored at having being sought out.

It helped that my requests (and Keneseth Israel’s request to Sara) were delivered personally and not in some mass e-mail, and also that the requests were tailored to their interests and areas of expertise.

My own experiences were with Jews, but this is all the more true for non-Jewish people, like Sara, who are involved, on some level, in Jewish life. Many feel shy and insecure about their place in the Jewish community, worried they will do something wrong, will accidentally offend people or will simply not be welcome. It doesn’t help that many synagogues remain in denial that they even have non-Jewish members in the community, leading gentiles to feel they should keep a low profile.

So all you overworked synagogue lay leaders, my sage advice for the week is this: make an effort to warmly and personally invite a less-involved Jew or gentile to get more involved (in some specific and meaningful way) in your community.

And go easy on the mint juleps.

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