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Besuch der drei Engel bei Abraham und deren Bewirtung (Abraham and The Three Angels): 16th century painting on display at Benaki Museum in Athens. (Yorck Project) .
Raising a Mensch

Teaching Our Children the Mitzvah of Hospitality

-- Flaura Koplin Winston, M.D. Ph.D.

Community is at the core of Judaism. Reflect on the example set by Avraham Avinu, our forefather Abraham, who some have called the "Father of Guests." Abraham welcomes three strangers, running to them, feeding them, and acting as their servant. We remember and emulate Abraham for his acts of hospitality as much as for his faith, both of which have served as a legacy for Judaism.

The Lord appeared to him [Abraham] by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and bowing to the ground, he said, "My lords, if it please you do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought, bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch you a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then, go on, seeing you have come your servant's way." Genesis 18.

Anywhere you go in the world, a Jewish heritage is a ticket for hospitality. My father-in-law recalls with warmth the story of a Jewish family inviting him to a seder when he was stationed overseas during World War II. I remember praying with my husband in synagogues in Hungary, Austria, Israel, and elsewhere and how kind and welcoming the congregants were to us despite a language barrier.

Hospitality is more than a mannerly convention or a mitzvah, I believe that it is one of the pillars of the survival of the Jewish people. Throughout modern Jewish history, expulsion and persecution have forced Jews to leave one place and move to another. Welcome centers, run by community volunteers, emerged to welcome these wanderers. Starting with communities in Europe of the Middle Ages and continuing throughout the world today, they help Jews resettle in a new home and flourish. How do we nurture the wonderful heritage of Jewish hospitality in our children?

Fortunately for most of us, our children do not suffer from persecution or expulsion. Rather, their challenges are more personal and insidious. Parents are busy with work, with the care of elderly or sick relatives or simply with completing the tasks of daily life. Other families struggle with or disregard their religious identity, in particular those in which parents were raised with conflicting views on religious traditions, beliefs, and observances (even within Judaism). Others experience overwhelming traumas, like illness and death of a spouse, divorce, or bankruptcy.

For many of these families, religious practice becomes a luxury or a burden for which they simply due not have the interest, time or energy.

For the children of these challenged families, our hospitality can play an important role. With the parents’ approval, make these children feel welcome in your home, as an extended part of your family. Offer to take them to Hebrew school or synagogue. Open your home for play and study. Ask these children and their families to share a Shabbat dinner or to help you make challah or hamantashen or to light the Chanukah candles.

The secret to making this work in your busy life is to make it natural. Treat guests – children or their parents – as you would treat your family. There is no need to labor over a gourmet meal or to feel obligated to redecorate your house for company. What people in need crave is warmth, not excess. In fact, over-preparation can make a guest feel uncomfortable and can make the host resentful. Keep it simple and one more person around the table will be a joy and not a burden.

Learning from Avraham Avinu, hospitality is the host’s joy and mitzvah and there should be no expectation of reciprocity. In our busy lives, hospitality reminds us of our humanity. If we are lucky, our small acts may have an impact of the life of a child. Some of my most cherished memories as a mother have involved watching my children’s friends grow up and knowing that we played a part in their lives. The greatest reward is witnessing instinctive generosity and hospitality in my own children. Maybe they were born with it or maybe my husband and I imparted a keep Jewish trait – hospitality – to our children.

I recently attended a beautiful, meaningful Bat Mitzvah. The young woman, whose early years involved family strife and then divorce, grew up with parents who had conflicting views on everything from religion to child-rearing. Despite this, soon after her 11th birthday, she chose to become a Bat Mitzvah. Having never studied Hebrew or prayer, she diligently spent a year and a half in intense study to prepare for the day. She led the congregation with confidence and a glorious, spiritual glow. During her reception, people were thanked for helping her reach that important day in her life. Among the acts recalled was an invitation to a family’s seder during a difficult time in her life. That invitation helped her and her family keep their connection to Judaism alive.

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Raising A Mensch Section Editor: Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston parenting @ pjvoice.com
Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston is a practicing pediatrician, associate professor of pediatrics and Scientific Director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She welcomes your comments, questions, contributions and suggestions for future columns.

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