Friday, December 25, 2009

Welcoming newcomers into the Boston Moishe House community

One of the hardest aspects of community building, in my humble opinion, is how to welcome newcomers. How do you make people new to our community feel comfortable? What are the challenges to accomplishing this?

I know these are questions that Moishe House Boston face, and I, personally, struggle with. On some Friday night dinners, we attract upwards of 80-90 people, many of whom have shown up for the first time. I know, as a housemate, I feel a sense of responsibility to introduce myself to someone who is new, talk to them a bit, make them feel at home--but honestly, it can be hard. Sometimes I don't know what to say to the person. Other times, I feel daunted by the sheer number of people--it can be hard to be "on." And there are times when I want to just catch up with my close friends who I haven't seen all week. What to do?

At Moishe House Boston, we have thought quite a bit about this issue, and one thing we realized was that this was not a "housemate" issue, but a community issue. No one person can or should be responsible for integrating newcomers. Instead, we felt that the ethos of welcoming new people should pervade our entire community. Rather than leaving this as a housemate responsibility, we believed that our community would be a warmer and more inviting place if our community members saw this as part of their job as well. We actively try to promote Moishe House Boston as a community for and by its members--and part of the job of actively involved members who feel invested in their community is to reach out to new people. This "task" not only cultivates a sense of ownership for our members (since the house belongs to them as well), but it makes sense practically: having a whole lotta hands help out is much more efficient and effective than having a few.

So, on a concrete level, we have enacted this vision through several concrete steps. Our "Shabbat and Festivals" organizing team designed a "Newcomers Shabbat" especially for people who had never been involved in Moishe House before or were new to town. During this Shabbat, which was held in September, we had structured programs where we broke people into smaller groups, so that they could talk and get to know each other. Sprawled across our house, people engaged in conversations with someone else they didn't know and were even given prompts to help spur conversations.

On a more frequent basis, we have assigned two people every Friday night to act as "greeters" to all people entering the house. Their job is to directly welcome the person, tell them where to go for services, be a warm smiling face. We also have all the schedule of our Friday night written and easily accessible so that anyone can follow along (i.e., we have a guide explaining the rituals, the pages for the prayers), and we label everything (what types of foods to put where) so that people can be "in the know" as soon as possible. We also have name tags that we use at every event so that people can get to know each other.

A more recent development, our Membership team has begun to actively identify first-timers by inviting everyone who enters the home to sign up, and check a box if they want to be followed up with someone. They are exploring ways to follow with such people (coffee dates with the newcomer, phone calls, "buddies") so that they can continue to feel welcomed into the community.

These are just a few of the ideas we have for how to welcome newcomers to our community. I am sure that as we continue to grow, our ideas will evolve and new challenges will arise. I would love to hear how others grapple with this issue!


No comments: