I usually think of hand-washing, germaphobe that I am, as a necessary part of my daily routine. I will admit to washing my hands or using hand sanitizer probably more often than most, but nonetheless it is not something I give much attention as part of creating a space of welcome for others. We all remind our children to wash their hands before eating, but as a Reform Jew I never thought much about the implications of hand-washing as a Jewish spiritual ritual.
Last month I participated in the Jewish Outreach Institute’s Judaism 2030 conference. There were approximately 200 participants, representing many facets of the global Jewish community, from rabbis and education directors to musicians and professional fundraisers. The conference revolved around four themes: spirituality, belonging, globalism and peoplehood. The opening plenary and breakout sessions focused on spirituality. My initial reaction was skeptical. I remember thinking, “What does spirituality have to do with outreach?”
My perspective on spirituality and outreach has completely shifted since attending the conference. Presenters emphasized the trend of Jewish people across the globe finding their spirituality outside the walls of a synagogue. While this may seem surprising or even alarming to some of us, it is a trend that will continue to grow. People find spirituality in a variety of ways, including hiking, chanting or even quiet reflection.
Throughout the conference, at each meal or snack time, I saw hand-washing stations set up. Hand-washing is a mitzvah that is done before eating, with a special bracha (blessing), thanking God for making us holy through the commandments and instructing us to wash our hands. Many conference participants walked past the hand-washing stations, while more traditional or observant Jews stopped to wash their hands before eating.
Hand-washing is a simple enough mitzvah to perform. What really struck me was the spirituality of this simple act. By stopping to wash our hands and recite a short bracha we are forcing ourselves to stop, reflect and put intention into our next activity, eating. Hectic as our lives can be, the ritual provides a chance to move away from frenzy and chaotic schedules into a place of calm.
Outreach can be thought of in the same way. It should be thoughtful, graceful and purposeful. My “a-ha” moment about hand-washing, spirituality and outreach is to focus on the small moments and think of them as significant opportunities to make connections. Each experience in the Jewish community is significant, even if it might not seem that way in the moment. A committee meeting, carpool to Hebrew school or even a workout at the Jewish Community Center might seem like an ordinary moment, but in reality these are all opportunities to connect with people with a spirit of warmth and welcome.
Lori Riegel is a Jewish educator in Tucson.