Recently, Ed Reilly, who reports for our local channel 7 news affiliate, WKBW, broadcast a wonderful story on the challenges facing religious institutions and the national trend of declining affiliation rates. I was both honored and humbled to participate.
A friend and colleague of mine, who is a master storyteller, used to quip that half of the stories he tells are actually true. Well, I've got a story for you, and it happened just last week. My wife and I don't have the luxury of getting out much, so with one kid at camp and another busy working in a theater during the evenings, we've been trying to make up for lost time! Last week we decided to go with friends to a Mexican restaurant a bit of a drive away, just past the southern border of Buffalo. We made a reservation and set off on our adventure, only to discover that the restaurant was closed. There was a poorly written sign on the door that basically said they had decided to close for the evening. I don't remember the exact wording on the sign, but in the last line, written at a sloppy angle was a single word: 'relax.' Not, 'we're sorry for the inconvenience,' just, 'relax.'
Who ever heard of a restaurant closing on a night when it had at least one active reservation? And why didn't they bother to call us?
Well, we thought that relaxing was pretty good advice, so that is exactly what we did -- at a different establishment! While we had a great time, I can tell you that we will not be making the drive to give this other place a second chance. They made it clear to us that they were not interested in our business or in us.
New York restaurateur Danny Meyers wrote an excellent book about the opposite end of the spectrum called 'Setting the Table.' He has built up one of the most successful restaurant groups in the nation by focusing on hospitality. And just so that we are clear, he's not just talking about hospitality towards his guests. Meyers built his business model on taking care of his staff, his customers, and his community all while staying true to his core values.
Although Danny Meyers may not be aware of it, this model is a very old one indeed. According to Jewish tradition, God chose Abraham specifically because of his holistic and heartfelt hospitality. Sadly, most synagogues today are not nearly as hospitable as they think they are. Too many of us are more like that place with the note that says, 'we're closed, relax.' We create tensions within our communities with exclusionary policies and unfriendly actions, or by taking the approach that we are not here to serve our congregants, but rather they are paying dues for the privilege of serving the congregation. Then we are surprised when people decide to disengage.
We need to be more like Abraham, and we can learn from Danny Meyers as well. Our success ultimately depends on us, and I believe it begins with cultivating hospitality at every level, starting with our staff and moving outward in concentric circles. It won't be easy, because we are if nothing else, creatures of habit and a stiff-necked people. Yet, if we can find the strength and courage to reorient ourselves back towards true hospitality, then we can all really relax, confident in the knowledge that we are building communities worthy of our commitment.
If you would like to purchase a copy of Setting the Table click on the picture of the book to be redirected to Amazon.com - I highly recommend it!
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras