Every once in a while, I am reminded that first impressions do make a difference. Let me give you an example of something I experienced today and then explain why I believe first impressions really do matter. I was notified that a donation was made to an organization in honor of my ordination. The donation was made to a fantastic organization. However, because my first name is Erin, the organization assumed my gender based on my name alone. At 36 years old, this is not something that is new to me. When I joined the University of Georgia Redcoat Marching Band in 1994, I was fitted for a female uniform, even though on my registration card, I had checked the "Male" box. When I asked them about that, the response was, "We thought you had made a mistake."
So, rest assured, this organization is not the first to make this error. However, this error was my first real experience with this organization. Now, I still believe this is a fantastic organization, and I hold no ill will toward it. As a matter of fact, I am sort of thankful in a way because now I am able to write this blog with a message that I believe is important for us all to think about. First impressions...do they mean anything? What about giving people, organizations, etc. a second chance or the benefit of the doubt?
It was brought to my attention just recently that a congregant was a little frustrated with Reform Judaism because he did not feel as if we (the we refers here to RJ as a whole) do not do a good enough job helping to guide our congregants in the everyday functions of life. We do not necessarily do a good job of using the messages of our Sacred Texts to talk about issues such as financial stability, equality in regards to human rights, how to address the over sexualization of our children by the media, etc. It as if Reform Judaism has lost the spiritual relevancy some of our congregants seem to need or want.
So, getting back to first impressions. I am a newly ordained rabbi - June 2, 2012. The impression I give to my congregation right now about my work ethic, my dedication to the lives of our congregants, my desire to teach and live a life full of social justice, etc. means everything right now. I could very easily take this congregant out for coffee or a meal and speak to him directly regarding these issues, reassuring him of the relevance of Judaism in his life and in the lives of all of my congregants. However, that is not the point. I believe his message to me is that I (and of course I mean all of us - clergy and lay leaders) need to challenge myself and my congregation to find deeper meaning in the words of our Sacred Texts. We should not be afraid of those issues that might cause controversy. Rather, we should embrace these issues and allow for people to discuss, talk and listen in a safe environment where everyone has an equal chance.
I do know that this could also prove to be disastrous. Ideologues on both sides of these issues could take over and turn a safe environment into a huge and uncontrollable debate. But, are we to shy away from everything that comes in front of us for fear of "pissing someone off?" No, we need to provide opportunities for people to speak, grow, learn, reflect, etc.
I could have very easily responded to the organization that mistakenly referred to me as a female by ignoring it and giving up my support of their organization. Or, I could do what I did - send an email thanking the organization for the honor of receiving a donation. Of course, I did make sure to let them know I was a male - but in a way that lets them know I am not angry, frustrated or have any ill will toward them. Rather, I want them to know, just to know - with no hidden motive.
Dear friends and family - let us recognize that first impressions DO make a difference. They do matter...but so does our ability to give people the benefit of the doubt. After all, we are giving them their first impression of us in the manner in which we respond. Let us all learn to think, reflect, and learn from first impressions and the responses to those first impressions.
Rabbi Erin Boxt