Dear Jew in the City,
I recently met my half-siblings online and I will be meeting them in person this summer. Most of my half-siblings are Jewish and some are Orthodox. I have not had many experiences with Jewish people. Could you give me a list of things not to do or say, and ways I can be respectful to my Jewish siblings? I really want them to like me.
Thank you for your message, which was forwarded to my attention, and congratulations on meeting your family. I’m confident that things will be fine, because they’re as interested in meeting you as you are in meeting them. Everyone may be a little nervous about saying the wrong thing, which is normal, but saying something that makes you feel a little foolish is not the same as saying something offensive.
I’m afraid there’s no master checklist of what to say and what not to say. I would just follow the general etiquette rules about not talking about religion or politics. Honestly, religion isn’t a completely off-the-table topic – most of us actually like being asked about things! – but if you’re concerned, there’s no reason to bring such things up in your first meeting. Politics should certainly be avoided – there’s no way to know everyone’s thoughts on the war in Gaza, on Donald Trump’s candidacy, on Rashida Tlaib’s comments, etc. Such discussions are best avoided, at least for now.
Here’s what I do recommend: If there are Orthodox Jewish men among the relatives, follow their lead when it comes to handshakes, hugs and kisses. The Orthodox generally do not touch members of the opposite sex except for spouses and immediate relatives. You may be the sister of someone, but you’ve also been a stranger your whole life, so I’d advise playing to their comfort level. There’s even less wiggle room when it comes to uncles, nephews, cousins, in-laws, etc. I don’t know your family, or how religiously observant they may be, so just follow their lead. (You could also ask in advance: “I hear that Orthodox Jews don’t touch members of the opposite sex. Is there anyone with whom I should avoid physical contact?”)
Don’t worry so much about the meet-up – I suspect that it will go well!
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Follow Ask Rabbi Jack on YouTube