The Mitzvah of Hospitality Reply

Idie Benjamin & Dale Cooperman

Welcoming is particularly on our minds at this time of year. New and prospective families are visiting our schools. With and without their children, they are touring the school to see if your school will be the right one or the best fit, for their children and their family. As these new people, these strangers, come into the classrooms, what will be their first impression? How will the children in the class react? How will these guests be welcomed? And as the “classroom tour guide,” what is your responsibility?

When a Jewish child is born, he or she is welcomed into the Jewish community with this blessing:

May this child…become great. Even as he/she has been introduced into the covenant, so may he/she be introduced to the Torah, to the marriage canopy, and to a life of good deeds.

The “good deeds” in that special blessing/brakhah show us that our lives should have a special purpose. Judaism says that we make the most of our lives when we work to make the world a better place. We do this through gemilut hasadim, acts of loving kindness. One of these acts, the seemingly simple act of Hakhnasat Orhim, welcoming guests, is such an opportunity.

Hospitality is simply making a guest welcome. And yet, this is considered an important mitzvah in Judaism. In the Torah, we learn the story of the first Jews, Abraham and Sarah. Their story is the one that begins the Jewish people and yet the mitzvah for which they are most known is hakhnasat orhim, hospitality.

What does it mean to be “welcoming?” From the beginning of the school year, our goal has been to create a welcoming and supportive community, a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community. Daily, as the children arrive, we welcome them to our classroom community. We model for the children how we want them to welcome each other every day, to invite each other to play in the classroom and playground. We support our children all year, helping them to learn how to be good friends—kind, accepting and always welcoming. We come together at circle time because each day we want a “formal” opportunity to reinforce the concept of a supportive and welcoming community whose members listen to one another.

But for the lesson of “welcoming” to have been truly understood, children must be able to welcome others in different settings, including new friends and visitors at school. It is not just something nice to do. It is a core Jewish concept that comes from our beginnings. Children need to know about Abraham and Sarah, and how the Torah tells their story and teaches us the mitzvah of welcoming guests.

Although Sarah and Abraham lived a long time ago, they are heroes that are unique in a Jewish way. Heroes are important to children. Judaism offers a different way to understand the concept of what a hero can be. Abraham and Sarah are role models because they teach us that no matter how old we are, we can help to make our world a better place. As Dr. Seuss taught us, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” (Horton Hears a Who)

Many times throughout the year, the children in the class will be a host—play dates, Shabbat dinner, birthdays, etc. It is not always easy for a child to be a host. When you talk about being a host, acknowledge their success with this important skill. “You may think this is just a fun time with a friend or a nice visit with grandma, but you are doing a mitzvah. I am very proud of you for being such a wonderful host. Doesn’t it feel good to do a mitzvah?”

Hearing Abraham and Sarah’s story does not automatically create empathetic hosts. The children must act it out and talk about it until it becomes part of them. What did Abraham and Sarah do? Why did they do these things? How did their guests feel? From these role playing experiences, children can learn what they should do when they are hosts in different situations. What will they do in their classrooms (and later, in their homes) to welcome different kinds of guests?

What experiences have the children had welcoming actual guests to their classroom? Have you welcomed a special synagogue person to your classroom—the rabbi, cantor, office personnel, maintenance staff? Did they come for Shabbat, snack, to tell a story, or to simply play? Have you welcomed parents and grandparents? How did the children acknowledge this special visit?

When guests arrive without time to plan beforehand, how were your guests welcomed? Are the children encouraged to stop what they are doing and be welcoming? When a child visits, does one of your students invite him or her to join the group at an activity or at play?

One beautiful way to show the importance of hosting a guest is to create a special chair for guests. This is yet another concrete way for the children to understand the “specialness” of a guest, and how they can make a guest feel welcome.

Empowering children to succeed in a variety of life skills comprises part of our job as early childhood educators, and welcoming guests is an essential skill for all ages. Let Abraham and Sarah help us teach this to our children, and as with everything else we do, encourage their success. Trust that a visiting family will recognize this, and that they will happily anticipate becoming a part of this welcoming and spiritual community for themselves and their children.

Check out Drops of Honey Hospitality by ID and Dale (http://www.torahaura.com/ItemDetails.aspx?ItemNo=DROPSHAKNASAT)

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