Welcoming of the Stranger
September 24, 2021
By Cantor Penny S. Myers

Have you ever experienced Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) in a synagogue you had never been? What if you were there alone, without your family with you, not knowing a single person in the city, let alone in the synagogue? It sounds daunting, lonely, and certainly uncomfortable, but I experienced exactly that for this most recent Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Leaving Buffalo, where I know so many of our community member stories, where  when I served TBZ I knew where families liked to sit in the pews, knowing every detail intimately of customs, history, music and ritual of the synagogue I served for a quarter of my life only to go to the other extreme of davening in a shul unseen, in a city I’d never visited before; I was indeed a stranger in a strange land! 

This past spring, I decided to enter into High Holy Day Cantor Placement through the Cantors Assembly, my professional association for Hazzanim (Cantors) trained in the Conservative movement. 

While many pulpits all over the country expressed interest, something about Congregation B’nai Jacob (CBJ) in Woodbridge CT just felt b’shert (meant to be). Paul Schatz, head of the search committee and a past president welcomed me with open arms since my initial acceptance mid-spring.  I appreciated his support, guidance, and availability to help me become acquainted with this new synagogue.  He was also overwhelmingly appreciative for MY choosing them!

As I worked with Rabbi Rona Shapiro we developed a deep friendship and respect. Her being one of the early women in the Conservative rabbinate, she welcomed my lyric soprano, contemporary davening style and wanted my opinion on almost everything we crafted for the High Holy Days; it didn’t matter to her that I was unaware of CBJ’s traditions, she placed her trust in my expertise liturgically as well as musically.

She checked in on me often, called to see how my family or I was, this temporary ‘transactional’ position of my being their High Holy Day Cantor renewed, inspired, and awakened me to exactly what our Torah encourages us to do.  There are more than 36 references in Torah that teach us how to welcome a stranger.

Congregation B’nai Jacob is an exemplary synagogue and a model of Torah and in return I gave them my very best. They also offered me a full-time job, and while tempting, as you all know Buffalo is home!

As we continue Sukkot, our holiday where we are compelled to fulfill mitzvah of hachnasat or’chim, welcoming guests into our sukkahs and homes, I pray that you are welcomed with sweetness and graciousness akin to the experience I had at Congregation B’nai Jacob.

Chag Sukkot Sameach!

Cantor Penny S. Myers is the Region Chair of Cantors Assembly, Great Lakes and Rivers Region.

Welcoming of the Stranger - Jewish thought of the week graphic