When Dr. Ron Wolfson is asked how to make synagogues “sacred and vital” centers of Jewish life, he starts with a surprisingly simple answer.
“We’ve researched how to build a warm and welcoming culture in congregations,” said Wolfson. “Congregations can start by making sure everyone who walks in the door is warmly greeted.”
Wolfson said the concept — set out in his book The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation into a Sacred Community — was based on “horror stories” he’s heard in visits to hundreds of communities about people feeling shunned or made to feel they don’t belong when they enter synagogues.
On March 5-6, Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen will welcome Wolfson as scholar-in-residence.
Wolfson, the Fingerhut Professor of Education at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and president of Synagogue 3000, will offer three talks. On Friday night, he will speak about “God’s To-Do List,” based on his book of the same name, which focuses on the concept of tikun olam, or repairing the world.
“The big question in that book is, ‘What am I here for?’” said Wolfson in a Feb. 19 phone interview with NJJN. “What am I supposed to do with my talents and gifts? The Jewish answer is that I’m here to be God’s partner on earth and help God with the work of creation, to fix things that are broken and to emulate midot, God’s characteristics.”
On Shabbat morning, Wolfson will speak on the synagogue renewal work he has done at Synagogue 3000 along with Dr. Lawrence Hoffman, professor of liturgy at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.
On Saturday evening, Wolfson will conduct a program based on another of his books, The Seven Things You’re Asked in Heaven: Reviewing and Renewing Life on Earth.
In the 2006 book, Wolfson asks what he calls “the bucket list question,” prompted by an episode related about Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th-century German rabbi and philosopher. On his deathbed, the rabbi asks his students to take him to see the Alps. When they ask why, the rabbi tells them he doesn’t want God to question why he hadn’t visited his Alps.
“That is a question about not what you did in life, but what you did not do while you were alive,” explained Wolfson. “Did you set aside time to learn Torah? Did you continue with your lifelong ability to learn?”
His point, he said, “is Judaism emphasizes life before death, so the book is not about heaven at all…. It’s really quite comprehensive about the things that really matter in life.”
The program is sponsored by Neve Shalom’s Scholar in Residence Fund and Gilbert and Claudie Hayat and Ohev Shalom endowments.
Cantor Sheldon Levin said Wolfson is “engaging, inspiring, and a wonderful presenter.”