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 in a phone interview with NJJN. “Congregations can start by making sure everyone who walks in the door is warmly greeted. Everybody can do a better job at being more welcoming.”
Wolfson said the concept — which he sets 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 simply made to feel they don’t belong when they enter synagogues.
Wolfson — Fingerhut Professor of Education at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and a cofounder and president of Synagogue 3000 — will offer four talks as scholar-in-residence Friday-Sunday, March 11-13, at Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls.
On Friday night, he will speak about the concepts presented in his book God’s To-Do List: 103 Ways to Be an Angel and Do God’s Work on Earth.
“The big question in that book is, ‘What am I here for?’” said Wolfson. “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 How Modern Seders Relate to Today’s Torah Portion. That evening, following Havdala and a covered-dish supper, he will talk about the concepts set forth in his 2006 book The Seven Things You’re Asked in Heaven: Reviewing and Renewing Life on Earth.
Wolfson said that work has received the best response from among his many books. Publisher’s Weekly described it as “an ingenious approach to proper conduct.”
“People have told me it has made them laugh and cry, but most of all has made them think,” said Wolfson.
In the 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?”
And yet, he insists, you mustn’t wait for an afterlife to fulfill your purpose. He said he likes to encourage readers and audiences to ask themselves “the bucket-list question.”
“Judaism certainly believes in life after death, but my point is Judaism emphasizes life before death, so the book is not about heaven at all. When you put all seven questions together, it’s really quite comprehensive about the things that really matter in life.”
On Sunday morning, he will hold an interactive workshop on Building Good Tents: Envisioning the Synagogue of the 21st Century, focusing on the synagogue renewal work he has done through Synagogue 3000 with Dr. Lawrence Hoffman, a professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.
MRT’s Rabbi Michelle Pearlman said the synagogue is bringing Wolfson in because he has “really practical things to share about bringing the joy of Judaism to life.”
“We’re thrilled to have him,” she said. “He’s an incredibly engaging speaker and Jewish educator. His books are amazing and wonderfully accessible and give practical tools about bringing Jewish text into our own lives.”
Perlman said the temple just finished a family retreat based on God’s To-Do List that “really engaged” both children and adults.
“We hope to experience more joy and hope to engage with our own community and with the wider Jewish community to make our congregation more welcoming,” she added.