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Becoming Hospitable People: A Conversation with Lori Palatnik
A few weeks again, the Atlanta Jewish community welcomed into their homes 400 Jewish families who were fleeing Hurricane Irma. One local family even hosted 75 people at its Shabbat dinner. Judaism teaches that Hachnasat Orchim, showering our guests with hospitality, is an important mitzvah. As Jews, we can travel anywhere in the world and know that other Jews will welcome us into their homes. This is something that JWRP Founding Director Lori Palatnik has experienced many times. She has been a guest at people’s homes all over the world and she has hosted hundreds of guests in her own home. In our conversation, Lori shares how the Jewish holiday of Sukkot encourages hospitality, as well as tips for being good guests and welcoming individuals.
Why is hospitality a Jewish value?
A few days after our forefather Abraham’s bris, he was speaking to G-d when he saw three people approaching his tent. It was a hot day in the desert and their feet were dusty. Although Abraham was in pain and in the middle of a conversation with G-d, he rushed to greet them. He washed their feet and asked his wife, Sarah, to prepare a meal for them.
If G-d were speaking to you, would you leave G-d’s presence to welcome your guests? Yes! And I’m sure that G-d was very pleased to see Abraham do so. Just as G-d cares for us, we need to care for others. Even greater than being with G-d is being like G-d and being kind to people. Welcoming guests gives us the opportunity to emulate G-d, become closer to G-d, and to become givers. Givers are happy people.
How do Sukkot’s traditions encourage us to be hospitable to guests?
Each year after Yom Kippur while I was growing up, I would head into my synagogue’s parking lot and step into the sukkah. There were berries and other decorations hanging from the walls and the Toronto air was cool. I didn’t know what Sukkot was all about then, but I do remember the sights and the sounds that I experienced in the sukkah. Later, when my siblings and I built our own sukkahs and invited my parents for meals, my mother said that if she’d only known about this tradition, she would have built a sukkah, too. The holiday is so experiential, which makes it a wonderful time to invite guests. According to Jewish tradition, G-d also sends guests from the Torah to our sukkah each day, who fill our sukkah with their presence.
During Sukkot, my family loves sharing our sukkah with friends. We eat and sing in the Sukkah and enjoy the fresh air. Judaism teaches us to dwell in the Sukkah during Sukkot, and last year, I was truly able to do that. The weather was so amazing in Rockville that I even brought in my easy chair and laptop and worked in my sukkah.
What does being a good guest look like?
It’s always nice to start off your visit by bringing a gift. Arrive on time or when it’s convenient for your host. Be sure to interact with the family’s children. Offer to help and be sensitive to your host. For example, don’t stay up all night talking to your hosts if they seem tired. Don’t start divisive conversations or use inappropriate language. If you stay overnight, ask your hosts whether you can strip the bed and where you can place the linens and towels when you leave. Appreciate that it’s not easy to host guests, and that it takes work and preparation.
How can our homes be a source of holiness and kindness?
Chesed, or loving-kindness, begins at home. Make your home into an oasis where every member of your family feels welcomed. Outside, they may feel rejected, criticized, or under pressure, but in your home, they should feel loved, appreciated, and cared for. Ask them how their day was. Serve the food that they like. Meet them with kindness.
How can we get our families excited about hosting guests?
If your family sees that having guests is a burden for you, then they will think that hosting is a burden. Show them that inviting guests to your home is an opportunity to bring more joy to the world. When they see that you get pleasure from it, they will enjoy it too.
One Shabbat when my kids were younger, I decided that we wouldn’t have any guests and that it would just be us. “What?!” my kids said. They were very disappointed because they loved having guests at our home. Now, my married children invite guests to their homes and knowing that makes me so happy. It’s not only important to be hospitable. How you host people can be even more important.
How can we extend the value of hospitality to our communities?
When I lived in Toronto, I remember approaching someone who was new to our synagogue and asking her why she decided to join. She said that she’d attended another synagogue every Friday night for an entire year before someone asked her, “Are you new here?” That was when she decided to find a new synagogue. When you see someone who is new to your synagogue, for example, be sure to welcome them and see how you can help them. Look to do acts of kindness and to meet people’s needs, just as Abraham did for his guests.