The Eshel community was invited to spend a recent Shabbat with the Sixth Street and Stanton Street shuls, two Orthodox communities on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The hospitality, hachnassat orchim, extended by these shuls made us feel like these were our communities. Orthodox allies intermingled, learned together, ate and celebrated with Eshel folk.
The biggest challenge of the weekend involved housing: could we find each participant a place to stay that was comfortable and close to the location of the Shabbaton? Space issues aside, both having a guest and being a guest are vulnerable positions to occupy. Each party must trust the other; the guest is vulnerable to the host: will they be treated well, will their basic needs be met?
The host, in turn, opens themselves up to having a stranger in their home, and invites the unknown guest, the stranger, into their home. It was in this relationship of mutual vulnerability that a beautiful weekend of hospitality and respect unfolded.
Fast forward two weekends to this week’s Parsha, Parshat Vayeira, whence comes the image of the tamarisk tree (eshel) which Avraham and Sara planted. In the commentary, אשל (eshel) stands for אכילה (eating), שתיה (drinking), and לינה (lodging). The tree signified to passersby that this was where their most basic and urgent needs would be taken care of as guests. The eshel, we are told, was a pink flowering tree. Why did Sarah and Avraham place themselves under such a flamboyantly visible tree? Because they knew that in order to reach wanderers who needed their support, they had to be visible.
Eshel as an organization is working to create places where people feel included, and to give them the resources to stand up proudly for who they are. If the first question a community needs to ask itself is Are we ready to be welcoming and open?, the equally important second question is, Are we ready to make it known to others that we are welcoming and open?
Over the course of the year ahead, a few Orthodox communities will make it known that they are welcoming and inclusive. Will your community be counted amongst them?