The first time I ever was taken to Friday night services as a child, my rabbi came up to us at the oneg Shabbat (literally joyous celebration of the sabbath…it’s a a gathering after worship with a whole lot of food and schmoozing). He introduced himself and welcomed us. I still remember that he said to me specifically, “I want you to make this your second home.” Have I ever mentioned my literalist tendencies? By senior year of high school, I had slept many a night at the temple.

The second time I was taken to services, I turned to my parents midway through and asked, “is there going to be a snack bar again after?!”

Since then, perhaps partly because of that first formative experience, I have understood why the oneg Shabbat is important. I understand why, specifically, the rabbi’s role at the oneg is vital. But here’s the thing. I’m an introvert. And the oneg can be a challenging time slot in my weekly schedule.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the oneg.  It’s a chance to catch up with people and make new connections.  I value many of the conversations I have at the oneg. And I even enjoy the experience frequently. But it will never be a time for me that just flows naturally. It’s effort. Its become easier over the years, like most skills do, but it remains a conscious process for the most part. Not the conversations themselves, more the chat that leads up to the conversation.

That’s the thing about introverts and what’s often misunderstood about us. Things that extroverts find easy don’t necessarily come naturally to us. It’s not that we don’t like people…more that we interact with them differently. We also recognize that we live in an extroverted world, so we’re used to that. And many of us are mostly used to acting as extroverts. I’m fortunate in that I have some extrovert tendencies…so it’s not as hard for me as it is for some…but at my core I’m an introvert.

All that said, I realize I’m not the only introvert out there who has situations where I need to put on extrovert face.  I’m certainly not the only introverted rabbi. And since one of my young future colleagues has asked, here it is.  I hope that others will add their thoughts and ideas in the comments.

I was hesitant to post this, out of fear that people would think that all my interactions were fake–but then I read through what I was saying and realized that it was, in fact, the opposite.  Part of how I make it work, for me, is that I treat every interaction as very real.  And that makes it easier.   And, I remembered that being an introvert isn’t a bad thing and that people knowing about how my brain works will not end the world.  And so I decided that I needed to post.

I similarly recognize that there will be those that think that I ponder every moment and that each thing I do at an oneg is a conceived of act of manipulating a situation, but truly that’s not really the case.  I’ve been me for a long time and been me as a rabbi for not quite as long, but a while.  Most of this comes naturally by now.  I’ve integrated it (and it’s been a really interesting exercise to describe it here).  That’s not to say that it’s all become easy–it hasn’t always–but the more I practice, the less I have to think about it, and it becomes easier than it was before.  It’s still a conscious step to walk up to a person, but I don’t have to think as much as I once did about what I say when I get there.

Anyway, here I go:

My introvert’s guide to oneg Shabbat.

1. Small talk is necessary.  But it doesn’t have to be meaningless–and short conversations do not have to be small talk.  I seriously don’t understand small talk–I know people do it and seem to see it’s value, but I really don’t get it.  So, I try to take those conversations and make them into something else.  It may look like small talk, but to me it’s a conversation.

Ask questions about things that are interesting or important: what’s going on in their lives, a question about the sermon you gave, things going on in the world.  Listen to what they say and go from there.  Follow up on something you’ve talked about before.  Pretend it isn’t small talk, but a discussion of important and interesting subjects–and it has the potential to become that.  If you treat the talk as small, it will be.  If you make it a real conversation, it at the very least has the potential to be so.

Treat every moment like a potential I-Thou moment.

2. Particularly for clergy (and, really, we’re the only ones who are mandated to be at the oneg), remember that you’re automatically interesting.  That you will have a conversation with someone is, in and of itself, significant.  But also don’t underestimate the power of that potential.  What you say will be remembered.  Scary, I know.  But if you say just one good thing (a lesson, a wish, something that shows that you know the person and care about the person), then they’ll remember that.   And even if it’s small, the fact that you approached them and said Shabbat Shalom will matter.

3. If you have a conversation with a child, they will remember it.  And so will their parents.  Asking a child pretty much any question will lead to a conversation.  And can lead to important moments.  And can lead to wonderful follow up conversations with both child and parent(s)/guardian(s).  And can lead to an important relationship between that family, and that child, and their Judaism (and you).

4. They don’t bite.  No, really, they don’t.  Well, some of them might–but it’s highly unlikely that they’ll bite you.  But seriously–the conversation won’t be as bad as you think it will.  And they will have no idea that it was a struggle for you.  I worked at Borders for a few months several years back when I was underemployed and I used to get assigned to be “greeter” more than infrequently–you know the person that stands by the entrance and says, “Hi! Welcome to Borders!! Is there anything I can help you with?” and then follows up if there is follow up.  It was my least favorite task, and one time, I made a comment about that in front of the manager–he was shocked that I didn’t like it because, he said, I was so good at it.  To him, it seemed like it was natural to me.  I think that many interactions are like that.

5. Have a handful of easy conversation starters in your pocket (no, not literally).  It can be about anything…a recent news item, the Torah portion, something you read that week, how tasty that pastry is…anything really.  Say something about it or ask something about it and go from there.

6. They are probably intimidated by the conversation, as well.  Unless it’s someone with whom you have regular communication (and, in that case, it’s probably not as challenging), there is likely an intimidation factor in their talking to “the rabbi” (or the “insert title here”).   And hey–for all you know, they’re an introvert, too.  Accept the fact that you’re not entirely at ease and forgive that in yourself–they may not be at ease either.

7. Say Shabbat Shalom to as many people as you can. Even if it’s in passing. Smile and say it.  And mean it.  Because really, you do care about these people. Especially when you’re at your interaction saturation point, this can be incredibly helpful.

8. Sometimes, you need to go.  And that’s ok.  People get that we have other responsibilities, and (usually) that there’s a whole room of congregants to get to.  And other responsibilities you need to fulfill.  You can appropriately step away at some point.  Take your cues of when this can be from other clergy (if there are other clergy) or from lay leaders.  Don’t be afraid to ask the question, early on in a position (preferably not at the oneg itself), how long does the rabbi (or the “insert title here”) stay at the oneg?

9. See the oneg not as a series of challenging interactions, but as a series of potential opportunities to engage.  This is somewhat a reiteration of point 1, but is worth repeating, and is slightly different.  Every conversation might be an entry point for the person on the other side.  By talking to them, they feel welcomed.  By asking them questions, they feel valued.  By hearing their story, we enter into a relationship being built.  If we are building communities based on relationship, then we need to do this.  And not undervalue the small conversations.

10. Don’t go to your friends first.  They can wait.  And they make really good breaks between others.   They need you, too, but don’t default to them because it’s easy.  They’ll stick around and you can catch up with then after you’ve caught up with others.

11. That reminds me–don’t be afraid to take breaks.  If you’re feeling exhausted or drained, or you’ve hit that wall, go to someone whom you know you can talk to.  And someone who, at least to a degree, gets you.  Have a slightly longer conversation with them, and it may help.  Or go run to your office to grab something if you really need to leave the room and breathe for a second.

12. You’re allowed to be exhausted after. Situations like the oneg can be really draining. But they also tend to come at the end of the night.  And then you can go do whatever you need to do to recharge.  Have your “i” time as I like to call it (a little word play between the first person singular and the i of introversion).

13. These are the moments people remember. And, yes, that’s scary in and of itself, but it’s true.  They will likely remember what you talked about at the oneg more than they remember your sermon, no matter how good it was (frustrating, yes, but we can’t get out of the sermon, either).  You need to have this conversation with that congregant over there not because you’ll get criticism if you don’t, and not because the rugelach they’re next to looks tasty, but because that person matters.  And your conversation can influence their Shabbat.  And that connection can help to shape their lives and create a lasting bond between them and the congregation.  And between them and you.  These conversations matter.

I apologize for the length.  Turned out I had a lot to say on this topic!! REK

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About rabbiisa

I'm a Reform Rabbi, with a passion for education! I'm also a pop culture fan, political junkie, and crossword puzzle addict. I am INTP, a proud member of Red Sox Nation, and a fan of the Oxford Comma.

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