What My Vacation Taught Me About Audacious Hospitality

by Frieda Hershman Huberman

Vacation enables us to reflect, rejuvenate, recharge our batteries, and look at life from a fresh perspective – and sometimes, it’s the actual vacation experience itself that becomes a learning opportunity. While on a short getaway this summer, I gleaned new insights on audacious hospitality, one of the Reform Movement’s top priorities.

1. Taking the first step toward change is difficult.

During my childhood, my family vacationed at Beach Front Gardens in Atlantic City. My parents chose to return for a week each summer because it suited our needs and was a known commodity. Our motel was just seconds from the boardwalk and ocean, had a kitchenette, and was a short walk from my grandparents’ home. I wondered, though, why we never tried a different motel or destination.Years later, my husband and I found a motel that was close to a great beach and to child-friendly attractions; it became our family summer vacation destination. Eventually, my children outgrew some of the town’s attractions and the motel became less well-maintained than it had been in the past. Still, it was familiar to us, and so one year, when I suggested a different destination, my children and husband adamantly objected.

Two years later, though, my family agreed to make a change. Taking that first step and making a change – even if it it’s just for something low-stakes and fun – can be intimidating. So, too, can taking the first step be difficult or intimidating for a seeker interested in enrolling in an Introduction to Judaism class or contemplating attending Shabbat services for the first time (or for the first time in many years).

A high school friend of mine engaged in 20 years of spiritual wrestling before finally embarking on her conversion journey. As congregational leaders, our duty is to facilitate that first step and make it as barrier-free and accessible as possible.

2. Words matter.

Now empty-nesters, my husband and I recently enjoyed a weekend getaway in Cape May, N.J. While strolling from our motel to the center of town, we noticed a sign outside Congress Hall, a storied hotel that read “Hospitality Since 1832.” The owners of Congress Hall might have stated “Open Since 1832,” or “In Business Since 1832,” but the word “hospitality” connotes a conscious message of welcoming.

What messages are we conveying in our ads, on our temple websites and when we answer the temple’s office telephone? How hospitable are we?

3. Beware of unintended hidden messages.

During the four afternoons I spent on the beach in Cape May, I noticed only four families-of-color, including one Hispanic-American family and one Indian-American family. Whereas other beaches we’ve visited in the past had a broader ethnic and racial mix, I wondered why Cape May’s visitors appeared to be more homogeneous. Perusing various Cape May tourist websites, I noted that individuals pictured at restaurants, shops, hotels, pedestrian malls, and beaches were all white. I certainly hope the website designers did not intend to be exclusive, but the pictures conveyed a “whites only” message.

What hidden messages may we inadvertently convey to seekers – and to our own members?

4. The human touch can clinch the deal.

Like thousands of other vacationers, my husband and I chose our motel and restaurants based on ratings from TripAdvisor. However, the personal attention we received —or didn’t — from staff factored into all our decisions.

For example, when making a restaurant reservation, if the clerk sounded too snooty, we chose another place to dine. Conversely, when a server politely pointed out that a particular salad contained shellfish that we wanted to avoid, and continued to offer outstanding personalized service throughout our meal, my husband and I noted that we definitely would return to the restaurant on our next visit to Cape May.

As the owner of our motel wisely told us, “We may be #4 on TripAdvisor, but we want to treat you as if we have been rated #1.” How many temples, early childhood programs, adult learning opportunities, and religious schools can claim the same aspirations and personal follow-up?

In all our interactions with members and seekers, let us be mindful that change is difficult, words matter, unintended messages can be harmful, and the human, personal touch is invaluable.

Frieda Hershman Huberman is the Union for Reform Judaism’s manager of Introduction to Judaism and A Taste of Judaism®, which empower seekers on their Jewish journeys.

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