Jews and Wal-Mart

[While I wait for the tea to cool…]

The Daily News has an interesting story about an interesting side effect of Wal-Mart on the community of Bentonville, AR. Bentonville, in the northwest corner of Arkansas, is a true Bible Belt community with 39 Baptist, 27 United Methodist and 20 Assembly of God churches. But with the growth of Wal-Mart came offices for Wal-Mart suppliers, and with these suppliers, came “the Jews”. Quoting the article:

Recruited from around the country to work for Wal-Mart or one of its hundreds of suppliers that have opened offices near the retailer’s Bentonville headquarters, a growing number of Jewish families have become increasingly vocal proponents of religious neutrality in the county. They have asked school principals to rename Christmas vacation as winter break, and many have done so. They have successfully lobbied the mayor to put a menorah on the town square.

The change is interesting. Two years ago, they opened the county’s first synagogue and, ever since, its roughly 100 members have become eager spokesmen and spokeswomen for a religion that remains a mystery to most people in the area. The Jews of Benton County come from strictly observant families in Connecticut, reform synagogues in Kansas City, Mo., and everything in between. They have agreed to share one synagogue (although Chabad has heard about the town, and sent down a representative), and are (in this synagogue) struggling to reconcile varied backgrounds and traditions.

They are also educating the community. When the synagogue celebrated its first bar mitzvah earlier this year, the boy’s father – Scott Winchester, whose company sells propane tanks to Wal-Mart – invited two local radio disc jockeys who broadcast the event across the county, even though, by their own admission, they had only a vague idea of what a bar mitzvah was. Another father made a presentation about Hanukkah to his son’s kindergarten class, complete with an explanation of how to play with a spinning dreidel and compete for chocolate coins imported from New York… this presentation proved so popular that the school’s librarian taped it for future classes. Another synagogue member opened a restaurant across the street from a new 140,000-square-foot, glass-enclosed Baptist church that serves knishes, matzo ball soup and latkes.

The most interesting comment was:

“You have to try harder to be Jewish down here,” said Marcy Winchester after her son’s bar mitzvah reception.

This ties to a comment Rabbi John Sherwood made to my daughter when she was preparing an antisemitism presentation: “What’s good for Jews isn’t good for Judaism, and vice-versa.” In other words, in communities facing lots of antisemitism or evangelicalism, the Jewish community organizations grow in importance, and become precious things to nurture. If life for Jews is comfortable, who needs the synagogue or community center.

Very interesting article.

[Crossposted to weirdjews and cahwyguy]