For the better part of my young adult life, I took groups of Jewish teens around the country on a program called USY on Wheels. One of my favorite stops was always a place situated in middle-of-nowhere South Dakota called Wall Drug. It’s hard not to sound like Saturday Night Live’s Stefon in describing Wall Drug, but this place has everything: buffalo burgers, nickel coffee, the world’s largest jackalope, a Singing Cowboy Orchestra, and a wall of news clippings about people standing at the wall of clippings reading about people standing at the wall. But more than this, Wall Drug has an extraordinary story that, I believe, has much to teach.
It begins in the Great Depression. Unable to support his family as a farm laborer in Sioux Falls, 28 year-old Ted Hustead took his wife and 4-year-old son, loaded a truck, and moved to Wall, South Dakota, a small town on the edge of the Badlands. At the time, Wall’s population was about 350 people. With the $3,000 he had to his name, Ted purchased a small pharmacy. To his dismay, however, business was terrible. There simply weren’t enough sick folks in Wall at any given time to support a pharmacy.
The Husteads were on the verge of bankruptcy when Ted’s wife, Dorothy, came up with a desperate scheme. One afternoon, she tried to take a nap, but the noise of passing traffic on the nearby highway made it impossible for her to sleep. And then it hit her: with all those people out on the highway, there must be some way to draw them into the store. “We got plenty of water and ice,” she told Ted, “so why don’t we put up a few signs on the highway offering free ice water?”
It was a long shot, but Ted agreed it was worth a try. He put up some billboards along what is now Interstate 90 and, barely minutes later, thirsty travelers began to flock to the store. More and more customers heard and followed, and business boomed.
Energized by the initial success, the Husteads kept expanding the store. In time, they were spending $300,000 a year on billboard advertising. Eventually, Wall Drug signs could be seen in all 50 states, on London city buses, and in every train station in Kenya. Even visitors to the Taj Mahal can find a nearby sign reading, “only 10,728 miles to Wall Drug.” With the help of this aggressive billboard campaign, the Husteads made a fortune. Today, Wall Drug takes in more than $10 million a year and draws some two million annual visitors.
There is much synagogues can learn from Wall Drug’s success. To me it boils down to one basic strategy: Wall Drug met people where they were.
How did Wall Drug do this? First, the Husteads considered what real people actually needed. In the days before cars had air conditioning and before the advent of the interstate highway system with a 7/11 at every exit, travelers traversing the old highways needed places to cool off and refresh. Dorothy Hustead intuited this need and recognized Wall Drug had the capacity to meet it: “We got plenty of water and ice.”
Second, Wall Drug cared about each and every customer as a person. They didn’t simply offer ice water to their customers. Rather, they offered “free ice water.” By making the first encounter with a customer be about caring for his or her needs without a quid pro quo, Wall Drug showed that it cared more about each person than making a sale. Sure, some people would take advantage of a free offer, but Wall Drug bet, correctly, that most people would reward such a gesture with loyalty.
Third, the offer of free ice water made the store accessible. It signified to the customer that the shopping experience would be free of judgment or pressure, and made it as easy as possible for them to decide to walk through the doors.
And fourth, they brought their message directly to the people, literally meeting people where they were, whether that was out on the highway, on a London city bus, or at the Taj Mahal. The Husteads knew that they couldn’t simply wait for people to come to them. They had to go out and bring people in. And the strategy paid off.
If I could sum up what it means to meet people where they are, I would say it involves four core attributes: Dynamism, warmth, caring, and passion. Dynamism is about continually evaluating people’s needs, right here, right now, and doing whatever the moment requires to remain relevant to those needs. Warmth is about providing ways in and breaking down the barriers that restrict access. Caring is about making sure each individual knows that he or she matters, that a relationship is the highest value. And passion is about energetically reaching out to those who are not yet part of the experience.
These values, it turns out, are exemplified by none other than God in today’s Torah portion, which tells the following story:
Abraham and Sarah are unable to have a child. Abraham takes Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar, as his second wife. Together, they have a son, Ishmael.
Then, God enables Sarah to conceive, and she gives birth to a son named Isaac. Some time later, Sarah instructs Abraham to kick Hagar and Ishmael out of the house.
Abraham packs up some food and water and sends Hagar and Ishmael off into the desert. The road was long and the sun was blazing, and soon enough, the pair find themselves in the middle of nowhere with no food, and no water. Unfortunately, Wall Drug wasn’t around yet. Hagar assumes that both she and her son are going to die, so, not wanting to witness her son’s death, she leaves him under a bush and weeps.
Miraculously, an angel calls to Hagar and reassures her, “Fear not. God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” God opens up Hagar’s eyes, and she discovers a well of water. She fills her flask, gives drink to Ishmael, and saves his life. Ishmael grows to be the father of a great nation, just as God promised.
Like a cosmic Wall Drug, God responds with dynamism, warmth, caring, and passion. God hears Ishmael’s cries; assesses the real, immediate, human needs; and determines to take direct action to meet those needs. God makes it as easy as possible for Hagar and Ishmael’s needs to be met, literally removing the impediment to Hagar being able to find water by opening up her eyes and thus enabling her to discover the well. God shows that God cares for Hagar and Ishmael, addressing their needs without asking for anything in return and promising to remain part of Ishmael’s life even after this encounter is over. And, finally, God doesn’t wait for Hagar and Ishmael to request help. The angel says that God hears Ishmael’s cries, but the text never actually says Ishmael was crying! God, in other words, hears Ishmael’s inaudible cries, intuiting Ishmael’s needs without Ishmael having to expresses them, and proactively offers help.
Just to make sure we did not miss the point, the angel says, “God has heeded the cry of the boy ba’asher hu sham, where he is.” It would have sufficed for the angel to say, God hears the boy. What is added by the phrase “ba’asher hu sham, where he is”? Where else, after all, would God have heard his cries, other than where he was? The Torah adds these words to remind us that God was committed to meeting Ishmael in the present moment, physically, emotionally, spiritually; not in the place where God imagined him to be, or where God wished he was but, rather, where he actually was.
One of the great imperatives of the Jewish tradition is that we are called to act like God, to act in accordance with the highest imaginable ideals of compassion and justice. The responsibility to act in a goldy way extends not only to every individual, but also to every community. This value should be especially pressing for a community, like ours, that calls itself Beth-El, from the Hebrew Beit El, meaning, “House of God.” If we are to live up to our name and truly be a House of God, then we need to dedicate ourselves to making sure that we embody God’s qualities and emulate God’s actions in everything we do.
So what would it look like for us, as a congregation, to act like God and strive to truly meet people where they are?
First, it would mean focusing on what real people actually need.
While it is true that we live in a time of cynicism and individualism, people today still seek spiritual nourishment, meaning, purpose, and community as much as ever.
Consider, for a moment, the fact that the same Jews who don’t normally come to shul flock to spiritual experiences like meditation, yoga, and Ta’i Chi. People, especially young people, are increasingly seeking ways to impact their world. And signs abound that folks are rediscovering the profound physical, emotional, material, and spiritual benefits of real, in-person community, and are becoming hungry once again to forge a network of meaningful relationships for them and their families.
Of course, Judaism cherishes and offers many pathways to spirituality, purpose, and community. So why is it that only 30% of American Jews belong to synagogues?
I think it’s because synagogues rarely purport to be soulful, enriching, relational centers. Synagogues tend to view our mission as getting people to be more Jewish, by which we typically mean observing more Jewish ritual practices, acquiring more Judaic knowledge, and investing more in community.
This is a losing proposition. The vast majority of Jews already feel sufficiently Jewish without the extra ritual observance, learning, or communal responsibility.
But what if we flipped the equation? What if we viewed Judaism as a tool for human flourishing, as my teacher, Rabbi Irwin Kula, puts it? As a means, rather than an end to itself? What if our primary mission shifted from getting people to be more Jewish to helping them personally thrive and build a better world, with Jewish life and community becoming the method we employed to fulfill that purpose? What if we approached Judaism as a time-honored way of addressing people’s real human needs?
This dynamic approach has been precisely what we are striving to build at Temple Beth-El:
We have been scrutinizing the spiritual impact of our worship, developing prayer experiences that focus on inspiring feelings of joy, transcendence, and connection.
We shifted emphasis in our educational approach, from teaching about Judaism to utilizing Jewish wisdom as a tool to encourage personal growth and to inspire concrete action in the world.
We re-emphasized community, strengthening old programs and developing new ones with an eye toward nurturing deep and meaningful relationships.
Our successes over the past year convinced us that we are on the right track. As we had hoped, people who had been totally unengaged with Jewish life have, this year, rediscovered the spiritual and relational possibilities of Jewish life and community because of Beth-El. That’s why we wrote our new congregational purpose statement the way we did. It reminds us to continue striving for our ultimate goal, not simply of leading people to a deeper relationship with Judaism, but, rather, of “helping them thrive intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually and inspiring them to build a more just, compassionate, and peaceful world.”
Second, meeting people where they are requires removing the barriers to access.
The typical synagogue has many such barriers. Take membership dues, for example. The prospect of having to make a significant financial investment up front in order to deepen one’s relationship with Judaism and community can be daunting and disillusioning.
But up-front expense is only one of several ways that synagogue life feels inaccessible to many. Judaism is a thoughtful and spiritual tradition, but it can also feel prohibitively technical and foreign. From a certain perspective, these are some of Judaism’s greatest strengths. Spiritual practice ought to challenge us to live beyond our comfort zone.
However, even people who have had a lifetime of Jewish involvement can sometimes find Judaism perplexing or even intimidating. This is all the more true for people who are on the outside of the Jewish community looking in. They feel that they will be completely out of their depth, that they will be pressured into buying a whole lifestyle that is totally foreign to them, that they will be judged for every little thing: for what they wear or don’t wear, what they say or don’t say, what they practice or don’t practice, what they attend or don’t attend, for what they know or don’t know. Sometimes their fears are imagined, but very often folks discover those concerns to be all too real once they walk through synagogue doors.
Just as God opened Hagar’s eyes so she could see the well of water, synagogues need to clear the hurdles that too often bar entry: clear away the up-front costs, clear away the preconditions, clear away the judgment. When Jewish spirituality and wisdom are offered in ways that are accessible to all and free of judgment, people on the margins become drawn in. Of course, some people will take advantage of the freedom and leave. But most people will reward such welcome with loyalty.
There is a beautiful Yiddish term for this kind of approach, heymish, meaning “like home.” Heymish evokes friendliness, informality, and a lack of pretense.
While we know we have more work to do in the coming years, we have been striving to make Temple Beth-El more heymish over the past year:
We have literally been keeping the door open during services so that no one feels locked out. We moved many services to less formal spaces. We created new services and classes to provide new ways in.
We regularly invited people to come dressed casually to Shabbat services, and we are building a culture where all services and activities, with few exceptions, are come-as-you-are. That’s part of why you rarely see me wearing a tie anymore on Shabbat, and sometimes – brace yourselves – I even wear sneakers to shul (they’re dressy sneakers, but still). It’s not because I’m embracing my inner slob. It’s because we are striving to communicate to all that we don’t care what you’re wearing, God doesn’t care what you’re wearing, we just care that you’re here.
I could name many other examples of the ways our community continues to become more heymish, and the end result is people coming up to us and saying, as one new member recently did, things like this: “I had some anxiety because of concerns that a theological skeptic like myself would not be welcome in a Conservative Shul. I was much relieved to have been proven wrong.” That’s the power of heymish.
Third, meeting people where they are means caring for their needs without asking for anything in return and committing to remain part of their lives. Let’s call this “being a mensch.”
Menschlikeit should be an area of strength for synagogues. Unfortunately, it’s actually a major weakness for many. Synagogues, for example, tend to devote most of their resources toward families with school-age children. But many outside of that demographic feel that the synagogue only really cares about them at one particular life-stage and abandons them at every other turn.
Consider also the traditional dues model, in which the fullness of Jewish life is reserved only for those who make an up-front financial investment. This dynamic makes many feel that synagogues prioritize finances over relationships. As one unaffiliated Jew put it to me recently, “The money becomes the focus rather than the belonging and the religious connection to G-d, to [the rabbi], and to the Jewish community.”
As part of our visioning process, we are in the midst of studying our membership and dues model and making recommendations for its improvement. And we have also been dedicated to doing more to care for every individual, regardless of their age, stage, religious background, gender, abilities or disabilities, sexual orientation, and financial level.
Hazzan and I work hard to make sure everyone with a pastoral need feels supported and enveloped by God’s love. New initiatives like The Bridge for those in their 20s and 30s, Hazak for empty-nesters, and KiRVA for our oldest seniors, are helping us ensure that all ages and stages remain nurtured and connected.
I’m extremely proud of the huge steps we have taken to make Beth-El a truly welcoming space for interfaith families, and also that Beth-El is the first and only Conservative congregation in Central Virginia to hold become fully inclusive of LGBTQ Jews.
There’s much more work to do, but let’s also celebrate the menschlikeit already so pervasive in our community.
Finally, meeting people where they are requires passion, being so committed to our purpose and so caring, that we are driven to reach out in order to bring new people in.
Few synagogues do this well. Most devote very little, if any, resources to advertising to those who are not-yet-affiliated. Their programs are designed to engage members only. What tiny marketing budgets most synagogues have are put toward in-house publicity. In other words, to the extent synagogues advertise at all, they are marketing primarily to the people who are already in the store. But how can you grow unless you reach out to the people outside your walls?
For Jews, this should not be novel wisdom. We are taught that outreach was precisely how the first Jewish couple, Abraham and Sarah, began to build the Jewish people, and for many centuries, passionate Jews actively spread their faith and won converts. True, for some of our history, we have shied away from preaching to the unconverted.
But it turns out that this practice is only as old as the Middle Ages, making it a relatively new custom by Jewish standards. Back then, a Jewish community might have been subject to violence for converting a Christian or a Muslim to Judaism.
Thankfully, we no longer live in that context. In our time, we can reject that outdated taboo and return to Abraham and Sarah’s model. While we must not push Judaism as “the path to salvation,” we can and should offer Beth-El’s Torah as a worthy path to a life of meaning, purpose, and goodness, both to Jews and also to people of other backgrounds whose lives might be enriched through Judaism. This work requires passionate outreach; devoting money and manpower to marketing and advertising; actively bringing our dynamic brand of Judaism to those who are not yet in the fold.
We at Beth-El are striving to live up to this charge. That’s why I’ve become Richmond’s “Pop Up Rabbi,” why we work to get Beth-El in the news, and why we make sure as many of our sermons and classes as possible are available online. But we have so much more work to do toward engaging those not yet in our midst.
And that, my friends, is where you come in. Emulating God is incumbent not only on our community but also, crucially, on each and every individual. After all, you are the community. We cannot be a dynamic and heymish community, infused with menschlikeit and promoted passionately in the public square unless each of us personally commits to being heymish, to acting like a mensch, to demonstrating dynamism, and to being a passionate ambassador for our community’s Torah.
So, this is not only a sermon but a call to arms:
Will you partner with me in this sacred work?
Will you join me in committing to being more dynamic, more heymish, more of a mensch, and more passionate in the coming year?
Will you, as a vital part of Beth-El, tend to people’s needs?
Will you open doors for people to enter into our community, greeting each and every person cheerfully, welcoming them without judgment or preconditions?
Will you forge new relationships and nurture old ones, making sure everyone you encounter knows that he or she matters?
Will you energetically reach out to those who are not yet part of the experience and work to bring them close?
If you feel up to the task, I have a gift for you. Ushers are coming through the aisles with wristbands. Each one is emblazoned with a reminder for each of us to personally embody our congregation’s values: to be dynamic, heymish, passionate, and a mensch. I invite you to wear this wristband as a badge of your Beth-El pride. Every time you look at it, remember that Beth-El’s future requires the commitment of each and every one of us.
We have set up shop on a highway jammed with thirsty travelers. We must together ensure we continue to have plenty of ice water here for the weary, we must together ensure that our water is free, and we must together ensure that everyone in Richmond, in Virginia, and all the drivers on all the roads in all the world, knows it.