So – I invite you to stop by early any school day morning; I would love to greet you! Better yet, come visit JCDSRI and experience the warmth and generosity of our extraordinary students who reflect the value – and the power – of hachnasat orchim.
It’s cold. The sun struggles to make itself known, weakly shining through the gray clouds. It’s another early morning in February. On this particular morning, there is a tug on my coat. I turn and a student shyly reaches for my hand. Taking it in his, he says: “Thank you for always saying ‘hi’ to me in the morning. It makes me feel special.”
Despite the gray, despite the cold, and despite the early hour, this is the favorite part of my day. Standing outside to greet JCDSRI students, parents and faculty (and even neighbors walking their dogs), I hope that my waves, high fives, and smiles communicate how genuinely happy I am to see each member of our community. Moreover, I am grateful to have the opportunity to practice, and to model, hachnasat orchim.
This value of hachnasat orchim – welcoming guests – animates much of our school culture. It is evident in the way every classroom’s student “greeter” warmly welcomes visitors, in the hugs older students give to their younger “buddies,” and in the stories and lessons our teachers construct with their students.
Beginning in PreK, JCDSRI students are introduced to the concept of hachnasat orchim when they hear the story of Avraham and Sarah who demonstrated great compassion and generosity when they invited three guests (who turned out to be angels) into their tent. This example inspires us at JCDSRI, as it did the medieval rabbi Rashi, who explained that Avraham’s commitment to hachnasat orchim was so great that he refused to leave the entrance of his tent so that he would not miss the opportunity to greet every traveler walking past!
What is it about this Torah story that we continue to find so compelling? Perhaps because it is tied to the exhortation that appears in the Torah: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34) Our unsettling experiences as outsiders, the rabbis suggest, compel us to follow the model of Avraham and Sarah. We should open the entrances to our “tents” and seek out the “strangers” in our midst.
This value of hospitality, as well as our awareness that we once were strangers in a strange land, is woven into the fabric of our Jewish identities. It reminds us at JCDSRI that we are to construct an authentically welcoming community, one that not only embraces the familiar (the “insider”), but also warmly invites those not yet known into our embrace.