In April 2009, Claire* became a member of a Reform congregation in New York City. A few months later, she went to Friday night services on her own. She enjoyed the worship, the rabbi’s remarks, the music. Everything was fine until she headed to the social hall for the oneg Shabbat, the buffet table laden with snacks and refreshments that is customary after Kabbalat Shabbat services. “I poured myself some juice and, scanning the room for a familiar face or two, saw only clusters of congregants socializing with others they already knew,” she says. “Standing alone amid strangers, the sense of community I’d felt earlier in the evening evaporated and my wallflower tendencies kicked in.” After a few awkward minutes, she slipped out the front door and headed home.
Larry Kaufman, past president of Temple Sholom in Chicago, experienced much the same thing more than three decades ago. He was in his twenties and living in a new city when his father died. Finding a congregation nearby, he started attending weekly services to say kaddish.
“I went virtually every Shabbat to the same synagogue for 11 months, and in those 11 months I was wished ‘Shabbat Shalom’ every week by the rabbi and the rebbetzin [rabbi’s wife], and never once by anyone else,” he recalls. Needless to say, the experience left him cold. He did not join that congregation.
Such stories are all too common, says Kathy Kahn, former Union for Reform Judaism membership specialist. While most Reform congregations hold Friday night onegs, Kahn observes that the most beautiful oneg with the most delicious food can turn into an excruciating experience if no one extends a friendly hand to a newcomer or draws him or her into the conversation.
“Even our most welcoming congregations often fall down at the oneg,” she says.
Four years ago, she reports, the Union for Reform Judaism asked volunteers to visit Reform synagogues in Cleveland, Seattle, Boca Raton, and Springfield, Massachusetts and assess how warmly they were received. The observers reported that although they were usually greeted as they entered the synagogue, that welcome did not carry over to what many of them called the “dreaded oneg.”
“All the hellos and handshakes disappeared at the oneg,” Kahn reports. “It’s like walking into a high school cafeteria where you don’t know anyone. I don’t think most adults ever outgrow that iconic experience, that fear—will anyone sit with me?”
Recruitment & Retention
One of the biggest challenges facing Reform synagogues is recruiting and retaining members. Only 44% of American Jews currently belong to a synagogue. Moreover, half of the Jews living in any given city were born elsewhere. Therefore, the chances are that anyone visiting your temple is doing so for the first time. “What will newcomers experience when they arrive at your synagogue?” Kahn asks. “Does someone sit with them? Most important of all, do they stand alone at the oneg, or do members engage them in conversation?”
“In many ways,” says Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, who teaches Rabbinic and Second Temple Literature at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, “the oneg is the congregation’s welcome mat, an integral part of the Jewish tradition of hospitality in the spirit of Abraham, who rushed to greet three strangers, referred to them respectfully, offered them the best of his food and drink, and kept one eye directed toward their comfort at all times.”
“The Kiddush [after Saturday morning services] or oneg Shabbat is one of the most important elements of a service,” writes Ron Wolfson in The Spirituality of Welcoming, his 2006 book on how to transform synagogues into sacred communities. “Greeting people is fine, and synagogues are getting the message. But creating a warm, welcoming community is about building relationships. When do you have time to build relationships? At the oneg.”
Wolfson notes that any oneg will increase the amount of time people spend in the synagogue getting to know each other, and a great oneg will keep them aroundeven longer. “Cookies and grape juice will often keep people for a few minutes—an extended kiddush of light foods may keep people around for another hour, socializing, enjoying each other’s company, creating community.”
Even the smallest congregations with virtually no budget make sure to offer an oneg. In some, the Sisterhood funds the refreshments or volunteers take weekly responsibility for either buying snacks or baking cookies and cakes at home. In other synagogues, groups of congregants gather together periodically to prepare and freeze baked goods, defrosting them as needed throughout the year.
It is difficult to ascertain the exact origin of the oneg as we know it. But the connection between food and Shabbat is deeply rooted in Jewish text and tradition.
The word oneg comes from the same root (ayin, nun, gimmel) as ta’anug, the Hebrew word for delight. “It is part of the very definition of Shabbat,” explains Rabbi Panken. “Isaiah 58:13 reads, ‘V’karata l’Shabbat oneg,’ meaning ‘You shall call the Shabbat an oneg or delight.’ That’s the proof text.”
Later midrashim and rabbinic commentaries make explicit the connection between feasting and the particular enjoyment one should experience on Shabbat. One of the earliest sources is in the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 31b), which says that a person is not allowed to fast on Shabbat, and can even be punished for not making the Sabbath a delight. “The idea is that the joy of Shabbat cannot be observed correctly if you don’t eat,” Panken says.
Regarding a communal oneg or kiddush, the Babylonian Talmud (Pesachim 101a) includes a debate over whether one is permitted to recite kiddush (the blessing for wine recited before a meal)in a synagogue. While it was agreed that the preferred place was in the home, one prominent rabbi held that since Jewish travelers often received overnight lodging in a synagogue, particularly over Shabbat when travel is restricted by Jewish law, such a synagogue could be considered a traveler’s home for that Shabbat and thus he is permitted to make kiddush there.
Indeed, “there was a tradition of the synagogue giving travelers the food and wine they needed for Shabbat,” Rabbi Panken says. “As synagogues professionalized in the contemporary world, with staff and people congregating for shorter periods of time before returning to the comfort of their suburban homes, it seems the oneg Shabbat morphed from this older idea to a way of welcoming people and continuing the tradition of synagogues being the place where people celebrated the joy of Shabbat through eating.”
Leah Hochmann, assistant professor of Jewish thought at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, dates post-worship onegs in North America to the early part of the 20th century at the latest. The practice of serving food after communal worship began with Saturday morning services, she notes. “According to halachah [Jewish law], you are not supposed to eat a meal on Saturday before services, so by the end of services, people were famished.” The oneg was probably developed to tide them over until they could get home for lunch.
She also surmises that Reform Jews in America “took their oneg with them” when they moved their primary worship service from Saturday morning to Friday night. Few Orthodox synagogues, by contrast, have Friday night onegs. “It doesn’t make sense,” she points out. “They hold services early, and worshipers go home for dinner.”
Before or After?
Approximately a dozen years ago, some Reform congregations moved their Friday night services earlier, to catch people before they had settled in for the evening. Arriving now directly from work, congregants were hungry. A little pre-service nosh—a pre-neg —seemed in order.
Chicago’s Temple Sholom, for one, introduced a 5:45pm wine and cheese reception—a pre-neg —when it moved Friday night services earlier to 6:15pm.
The temple still runs its long-standing post-service oneg and member Larry Kaufman says he much prefers it to the pre- neg, which he finds not nearly as social. “People drift in. Some don’t get there until right before the service starts,” he says. “With the oneg right after services, most people tended to go, even if they were there just for a few minutes. And a critical mass of worshipers is gathered together, which is an easier social situation for newcomers.”
Jessica Childs, the temple’s facilities coordinator and organizer of both onegs, says each serves a different purpose. The pre- neg was added, she says, to give congregants a chance to mingle before as well as after services. It tends to be well attended when bar or bat mitzvahs are being held the following day. “By the time of the post-service oneg, the family is out the door because the bar mitzvah has to get to sleep,” she notes.
The pre- neg also draws families with children, who prefer not to stay late after services.
About 10 years ago, Larchmont Temple in Larchmont, New York also added an early Kabbalat Shabbat service with a pre- neg. On the third Friday of the month, worshipers enter a lobby filled with beautifully decorated tables laden with assorted cheeses, crackers, fruit, vegetables, and dip, along with fine wines. The service itself is short—a half hour—filled with singing and guitar-playing. Afterwards, people are encouraged to dine together, either at restaurants or in each other’s homes.
On the other Fridays, services are later, followed by a more traditional and very festive oneg featuring a giant root beer float served from a punchbowl. If a bar or bat mitzvah is being celebrated, the head of the oneg committee calls the family to find out the child’s favorite dessert and tries to make sure it’s there.
Both kinds of oneg serve different needs, Rabbi Mara Nathan says, though she personally finds the pre- oneg more compelling. “People spend about 10 or 15 minutes at the (traditional) oneg, then dissipate,” she reports. “But at the pre- oneg, people come on time and stay for the full half-hour. It’s a more leisurely experience, very chatty. We hold it in the lobby, which has softer lighting and is more intimate than the social hall where the regular oneg is held.
“People who don’t necessarily show up on other Fridays come to this. They meet up at shul and go out to dinner together afterwards. I don’t know if it brings in hordes of newcomers, but it certainly makes our members feel warm and welcome.”
The Communal Feasting Route
A decade ago, Temple Ohabei Shalomin Brookline, Massachusetts replaced its post-service oneg with twice-monthly congregational dinners. On weeks without formal dinners, groups of friends go out to dinner together after services. Member Daniel Krueger finds that these meals do a better job of creating community than the onegs ever did.
“The dinners create a stronger relationship between congregants,” he says. “At the oneg, a lot of people would leave early. If you have kids, you want to get home by 9:00pm. Having a meal together…allows people to bond.”
Congregations sometimes need help figuring out who in their community is newly affiliated and who is a newcomer.
To identify visitors, Temple Emanu-El in Sarasota, Florida has created permanent name tags which members pick up on their way into services. Anyone else gets a guest badge, “so we’re aware of who may need a little extra welcoming,” member Elaine Glickman says. Once at the oneg, Glickman says, members and clergy go out of their way to talk to the newcomers. “The guests feel so welcome,” says membership vice president Kim Sheintal. “And if they’re talked to enough, they usually end up joining.”
Sheintal is confident that the badge system and the efforts to welcome newcomers have led directly to many new memberships. Sixty families or individuals have joined the congregation this past year, she notes.
At some synagogues, visitors are asked to use blue cups at the oneg so that members can identify them and extend a special welcome.
But at Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, Nevada, this practice was discontinued. “It was a problem,” says Rabbi Sanford Akselrad. “Either members would take a blue cup by mistake, or a new person wouldn’t take one and then no one would talk to him/her. And no matter how often you remind your board, people still talk to their friends.”
Now, instead, every Friday night newcomers are encouraged from the bimah to join the congregation for a warm and welcoming oneg and to introduce themselves to a board member or staff person at Ner Tamid’s membership table. “A sign that says ‘Ask Me How to Join CNT’ shows them the way to the table, a gathering place where prospective members can hear about all the benefits of membership and talk to representatives from our Board,” says Executive Director Nancy C. Weinberger.
“This handles the situation of people saying, ‘I came to the oneg and no one talked to me,’” Rabbi Akselrad says. “All they have to do is walk over to the table, and a friendly person is there, ready to talk to them.”
In some congregations, a rabbi will ask newcomers to stand and identify themselves at the end of services, allowing clergy and board members, as well as other congregants, to offer them a warm greeting minutes later.
While such gestures are often appreciated and contribute to a friendly, welcoming atmosphere, Ron Wolfson cautions that sometimes they can backfire by making strangers feel self-conscious. “It’s tricky,” he says, “because some people don’t want to be identified. The most successful mega-churches [whose techniques are sometimes emulated by Reform synagogues] never ask first-time visitors to stand and declare themselves.”
The Clergy’s Role
Clergy members can be emissaries, greeting and engaging people in conversation at the oneg.
Rabbi Ken Brickman, for example, has long been serving up the cake and cookies to everyone at Temple Beth-El in Jersey City, New Jersey.
“It’s been a chance for me as the rabbi to meet new people who might be temple shopping,” he says. “I love entertaining in my own home. Doing it in the congregation is an extension of that pleasure.”
At Beth-El’s oneg people sit at tables covered with tablecloths. That, says Rabbi Brickman, “encourages people to stay for a while and really get to know each other. And no one gets in or out without us [meaning longtime members and himself] finding out who they are, where they’re from, and why they’re here.” He explains that there’s no formal policy to welcome newcomers; doing so has simply become part of the shul’s culture.
Rabbi Richard Birnholz at Congregation Schaarai Zedek in Tampa, Florida used to host “oneg chats” in his office one Friday a month, concurrent with the regular oneg in the social hall. New members or prospective members from the previous month were invited to join him after services to chat over coffee, tea, and snacks. In the rabbi’s study, the same food was available as on the oneg table, plus a friendly group of other new people with whom to chat.
“[The attendees] begin to sell the congregation to each other, without realizing that was what they were doing,” he says. “Plus, they met new friends, without getting lost in the shuffle.”
Rabbi Birnholz believes that 70 to 75 percent of those who experienced oneg chats eventually joined the congregation. “The personal touch made the difference,” he says.
Ironically, the chats were discontinued about a year and a half ago because the congregation was getting so many new members—60 to 65 a year—he couldn’t keep up. Rabbi Birnholz says he’d like to get them going again soon.
The Board’s Business
In some congregations, board members or committee activists are tasked with conversing with newcomers at the oneg.
At Temple Beth Am in Jupiter, Florida, Debbie Carr says that board members “always approach the new faces”—a practice she knows pays off, because it worked for her. Carr first visited the temple 15 years ago when her mother was in town. At the oneg the two of them were immediately approached by a board member and his wife.
Two weeks later Carr returned on her own, and at the oneg another board member asked about her mother. “They’d talked to each other, and the board member remembered me,” says Carr. “I was really impressed.” She became a member.
In the decade since she joined, the congregation has expanded from 150 to 300 member families, which Carr attributes to the “excellent” preschool and religious school, to their “very personable” rabbi, and also to the “warm” oneg.
She adds simply: “You will never get a new member to join if your oneg is cold.”
A Community Responsibility
Kathy Kahn believes that meeting and greeting newcomers should not be the sole responsibility of the rabbi, cantor, or officers. “Every member needs to be an ambassador for the congregation,” she says. “And it boils down to this question: ‘Do you see yourself as a host or a guest?’ If you see yourself as a host, you make sure that people are mingling, that there’s enough food, that the person edging toward the exit is warmly acknowledged before leaving. A host is ever vigilant.” (To help you get past the stumbling block of “I don’t know what to say,” read “8 Ways To Greet a Stranger in Synagogue.")
A good oneg on its own isn’t enough to create the kind of community people will want to join, Kahn says. It needs to be part of a larger culture of welcoming that extends from the friendly face greeting newcomers at the door to follow-up calls that come later. If you'd like more information, or to follow up with a specific question, please call the URJ Knowledge Network at 855-URJ-1800 or email URJ1800@urj.org.
But those congregations which put that special effort into their oneg, making sure that every guest feels truly welcome, say it’s an essential part of the overall package. As Carol Gendel of Temple Adath Shalom in Poway, California explains: “It’s a way to say, ‘Welcome—we’re so glad you’re here.’”
*Name has been changed to preserve anonymity.
Sue Fishkoff is the author of Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority.
8 Ways to Greet a Stranger in Synagogue by Marcia Nichols
The commandment to “Remember the stranger, for you were once strangers in a strange land” (Deuteronomy 10:19) reminds us that connecting with strangers in creating community can be difficult, especially if we tend to be shy, but is nonetheless a Jewish imperative. Here are eight ways to help you get past your “I don’t know what to say” stumbling block and greet a stranger on Shabbat.
Introduce yourself before the service. “Let me introduce myself. I am __ and I have been a member here for __ years. I am happy to meet you…. Shabbat Shalom.”
Choose your words carefully to avoid embarrassment in the case that “the stranger” is new to you but not to the synagogue. “I have been a member here for __ years, and don’t know if we’ve ever met, but let me introduce myself.”
Show your interest in the newcomer by asking a question, such as, “Hi! How are you?” or “What brings you here tonight?” followed by an introduction. “Let me introduce myself. I am __.”
Offer a genuine compliment after the service. “Hi, I am __. You really read Hebrew well,” or “I enjoyed listening to your singing,” or “You didn’t fall asleep once” (humor can be effective)….
Mention areas of commonality. “Hello. My name is __. We sat in the same aisle. May I accompany you to the oneg ?”
Refer to the service. “I hope you enjoyed the service,” or “Did you enjoy the service?”
Make eye contact. Looking someone in the eye is a critical first step in initiating a conversation.
Smile. Communicating with friendly gestures and actions count as much as welcoming words.
The power to be an inviting presence rests fully within each of us. It is not beyond us; it is an emotional muscle we should exercise often. In putting aside our fears to welcome a newcomer, we remember that we, too, have been strangers in a strange land. And as we cultivate the habit of genuinely welcoming others, the strangers we encounter today may well become our new friends of tomorrow.
Marcia Nichols, longtime member of Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, Texas, is active in the synagogue’s Ambassador program, which matches established congregants with new members to foster a welcoming and caring congregational community.