New Bern is a small city that sits on the convergence of two beautiful rivers in coastal North Carolina. New Bern is old by American standards, founded but yesterday by Milanese reckoning. You would think there would be very little connection between this relatively rural American town and our sprawling, fast-paced Italian metropolis. But there is.
For one thing, the two cities share a Rabbi. I conduct High Holy Day services in New Bern and this column appears in both the Beth Shalom and the B’nai Sholem weekly email sent out by the respective congregations.
Several weeks ago I received a note from a North Carolina congregant that his grandson would be studying in MiIan this semester and perhaps I might make contact with him while he was here. Noah came to our Beth Shalom Shabbat morning service in November ,and David and I invited him to join us for our American Thanksgiving dinner the following week. One more connection.
It is a custom at Thanksgiving to go around the table and for each person to share with the assembled those things for which he or she is particularly grateful. Noah’s list included his gratitude for being included in our happy gathering because “otherwise he would be feeling far from home and very homesick.”
The story of this Noah, as opposed to the Biblical story of Noah, is all about connection and hospitality and family. While it is said that ‘six degrees of separation’ connect any two people anywhere in the world, for Jews - most of the time - the six degrees reduces down to just two.
A couple weeks ago David and I attended Shabbat morning services at Guastalla. Outside the building, the gatekeeper was rudely turning away yet another hopeful visitor. Security concerns aside, the woman it turned out was a Jew from Mexico City whom, in conversation, we learned was a close family friend of one of David’s former long-term business associates. Yes, most of the time - it only takes two.
This week’s torah portion begins ayleh toldot ya’akov, this is the family history of Jacob. We Jews refer to ourselves collectively as b’nai yisrael – the children of Israel. We are indeed all the spiritual descendents of Jacob, and that makes us all family - distant relatives perhaps, but family nonetheless.
One of the distinguishing and most laudable qualities of our Beth Shalom community is the warm and gracious welcome we extend to those ‘relatives’ from near and far who come to be with us for any of our congregational activities.
Yaron came to Milan after attending a Rockefeller Foundation meeting on Lake Como. He wanted only to find a place to say kaddish for the victims of the Pittsburgh shooting. What he found in addition was - as the home page of our website puts it - a congregation with a heart in the heart of Milan. This world travelling millennial wrote: Beth Shalom is the most warm and welcoming congregation I have ever attended.
In our tradition, hachnasat orchim – the hospitality shown to a visitor – is a great mitzvah. It is said that hospitality was one of the signature qualities of our patriarch Abraham. Beth Shalom can be rightly proud of our collective and continuing commitment to the performance of this righteous and holy deed, and I am personally thankful to be associated with such warm-hearted and welcoming people.