The Jews of Bentonville, Arkansas
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Back in 1991-1993, I long-distance managed two employees who were stationed near Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, a small town not far over the border from Missouri, Oklahoma, and Kansas. (Local legend had it that Sam Walton had picked out Bentonville because of its easy access to four different hunting seasons). So, I made a lot of visits to Bentonville.

It was a nice place: pleasant rolling countryside. The locals were friendly, and happy they were finally catching up to the rest of the country in prosperity. Low level Wal-Mart employees, such as assistant shoe department manager, had gotten in on Wal-Mart stock options early and hence were retiring to lake front homes.

In contrast, the upper ranks of Wal-Mart management were the brusquest clients I ever dealt with. Yet, they had principled reasons for treating visiting salesmen like me like dirt: they felt that America corporate life was corrupted by all the little favors salesmen did their clients, like taking them to nice restaurants and NFL games, and that they owed it to their stockholders (including stockholder-in-chief Sam Walton) to maximize profits rather than maximize the lifestyles of managers.

As far as I could tell, at the time, most of Wal-Mart's headquarters staff, including their brilliant IT department, were recruited from middle America.

Most of the Merchant Princes of the second half of the 20th Century, Leslie Wexner, Bernie Marcus, and so forth, were Jewish, and most at home serving metropolitan areas. Sam Walton, the greatest merchant of the era, however, was a product of the underserved middle of the country. He got started quietly building the biggest retail chain in world history by better meeting the needs of the kind of small town folks whom he understood better than than urban merchants.

Big city companies like mine were opening satellite offices to better serve at Wal-Marts' beck and call, and tended to rotate in big city outsiders. Of the two people whom I inherited to manage in Bentonville, one was a local good old boy, and one was a transplant from the East Coast, either Jewish or Italian, I forget which. She liked it a lot in Bentonville — it was cheap, the locals were friendly, and business was heading up — and was intent on staying.

Hence, Bentonville is one of the few small towns in middle America with a growing Jewish population, for which it has attracted, unsurprisingly, a fair amount of media attention.

From a book review by Jay P. Greene, a Jewish professor at the U. of Arkansas (35 miles away in Fayetteville) in the Wall Street Journal of Boom Town: How Wal*Mart Transformed an All-American Town into an International Community by Marjorie Rosen.

In recent years, Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt Trucking and, most prominent of all, Wal-Mart have attracted workers from across the globe to the tiny corner of northwest Arkansas where the companies are headquartered. The effect on the local community, according to Marjorie Rosen in "Boom Town," has been "cold stark fear–at least among a segment of the white Christian majority, which sees its comfortable, all-white way of life fading."

But very little in "Boom Town," an engaging if sometimes distorted community portrait, actually supports this storyline of white Christians resenting the influx of diverse newcomers. Instead, we learn about African-American, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu groups blending rather smoothly into business and social life in Bentonville, Ark. (Wal-Mart's home base), and the surrounding area. Peaches Coleman, the African-American wife of Wal-Mart's now-retired director of human resources, captures the real state of community relations. She remembers that "people threw bricks at our house" when she was growing up in Chicago; but in northwest Arkansas, she reports, her white neighbors "reached out to us in many ways that they didn't really have to . . . and in ways that have endeared this place to me."

There are really two distinct narratives in "Boom Town." One shows the ease with which well-educated African-American, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu newcomers have been accepted by local residents; the other shows the difficulties that low-skilled Hispanics have experienced, many of whom were attracted to the region by jobs at Tyson's chicken-processing plants. Ms. Rosen tries hard but can't comfortably combine the two into a single narrative about how white, rural Christians react to diversity. Besides, her accounts of police tension with low-income minorities and of over-reaction to illegal immigration could as easily be told about any American city. Being the "buckle of the Bible Belt" does not seem to make things any worse than in Phoenix or New York.

Ms. Rosen seems to expect that there should be especially severe problems with the acceptance of diverse newcomers in a geographical area that is, as she repeatedly puts it, "emphatically Christian." Instead, she finds that people of faith have an easy time understanding and accepting one another, including people who belong to different religious traditions, because they share a respect for religious belief. This type of tolerance is common in semi-rural northwest Arkansas but is not so common, one suspects, in the media and political centers that dot the coasts. ...

"Boom Town" does reveal some biased thinking, but it is often Ms. Rosen's own. In her epilogue she provides a stereotype-laden description of how she was pulled over by the Bentonville police for driving slowly through a construction zone at midnight. The police obviously suspected that she was drunk and subjected her to a sobriety test. In Ms. Rosen's mind the particular policeman who confronted her "regards me as though I were an alien . . . just arrived from an alternate universe called New York City." She continues: "My heart races as the boy-cop looks through my pocketbook, perhaps for a kilo of marijuana or a fifth of moonshine." Moonshine? The irony of associating Arkansans with moonshine in a book condemning stereotypes appears to be lost on the author.

Actually, when trying to navigate my rental car from Bentonville to the airport while talking business strategy on my first cell phone in 1991, I got so lost I ended up way up a holler with guys sitting on the front porches of their shacks, giving me very suspicious looks. I don't know if they were wondering whether I was a revenooer from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms out to look for their stills, but I like to think they were.

Anyway, there's not much money to be made in writing about how things are actually pretty nice in Bentonville. And there's little downside for distorting the situation. So, why not do it?

A 2006 New York Times article, "In Wal-Mart's Home, Synagogue Signals Growth," gives a less tendentious account than Ms. Rosen's book. This article is unusual in attributing agency to Jews, who are more typically treated by the press as purely passive individuals who get pushed around by yokels.

Then the Wal-Mart Jews arrived.

Recruited from around the country as workers for Wal-Mart or one of its suppliers, hundreds of which have opened offices near the retailer's headquarters here, 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 (many have) and lobbied the mayor's office to put a menorah on the town square (it did).

Wal-Mart has transformed small towns across America, but perhaps its greatest impact has been on Bentonville, where the migration of executives from cities like New York, Boston and Atlanta has turned this sedate rural community into a teeming mini-metropolis populated by Hindus, Muslims and Jews.

It is the Jews of Benton County, however, who have asserted themselves most. Two years ago, they opened the county's first synagogue and, ever since, its roughly 100 members have become eager spokesmen and women for a religion that remains a mystery to most people here.

When the synagogue celebrated its first bar mitzvah, the boy's father – Scott Winchester, whose company sells propane tanks to Wal-Mart – invited two local radio D.J.'s, 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.

"Jesus was Jewish," one D.J. noted in a dispatch from the reception at a local hotel. The other remarked, "I love Seinfeld."

Shortly after he moved to the area, Tom Douglass, a member of the synagogue who works in Wal-Mart's logistics department, made a presentation about Hanukkah to his son's kindergarten class. The lesson, complete with an explanation of how to play with a spinning dreidel and compete for chocolate coins, imported from New York, proved so popular that the school's librarian taped it for future classes....

Not everyone is ordering the knishes, but Christians throughout Benton County are slowly learning the complexities of Jewish life. Gary Compton, the superintendent of schools in Bentonville and a member of a Methodist church in town, has learned not to schedule PTA meetings the night before Jewish holidays, which begin at sundown, and has encouraged the high school choir to incorporate Jewish songs into a largely Christian lineup.

"We need to get better at some things," he said. "You just don't go from being noninclusive to being inclusive overnight."

Surrounded by Christian neighbors, Bible study groups, 100-foot-tall crucifixes and free copies of the book "The Truth About Mary Magdalene" left in the seating area of the Bentonville IHOP, the Jews of Benton County say they have become more observant in – and protective of – their faith than ever before.

Marcy Winchester, the mother of the synagogue's first bar mitzvah, said, "You have to try harder to be Jewish down here."...

There were, for example, Betsy and Marc Rosen, who moved to Benton County from Chicago in 2000 after Mr. Rosen was offered a job in Wal-Mart's technology department. The family did not attend a synagogue in Chicago because, Mrs. Rosen said, "you didn't need a synagogue to have a Jewish identity." There were Jewish neighbors, Jewish friends, Jewish family.

But not in Bentonville, where her daughter brought home from day care a picture of Jesus to color in. Suddenly, a synagogue did not seem like a luxury anymore, but a necessity to preserve her family's Jewish heritage.

In summary, some of Bentonville's Jews, most of them not very religious, highly assimilated corporate staffers from Suburban America, upon finding themselves in a heavily Christian region, rediscover and aggressively assert their Jewishness, using their advantages in media-savviness and argumentativeness to shake things up locally. Keep in mind that the number of Jews in Benton County, population 203,107, remains tiny: the synagogue had about 100 members in 2006, so the various changes that the polite locals graciously made in their customs at the insistence of Bentonville's Jews benefit only a tiny fraction of the community.

My guess would be that most Jews in Bentonville would prefer not to inconvenience the locals by making a big stink about how Christmas vacation is called "Christmas vacation" instead of "Winter break." (Here's Tom Piatak's 2006 article on Christmas I mean Winter in Bentonville.)

But there's no conceptual vocabulary in 21st Century America anymore for talking sense to the handful who get a kick, like George Costanza's father on Festivus, out of "the airing of grievances." They wouldn't schedule a PTA meeting on Christmas Eve, would they? Why should the majority rule? The minority should be equal to the majority!

In the 21st Century, Jewish Studies is perhaps the most understudied field of knowledge relative to its importance in understanding how the contemporary world works, and Bentonville provides an interesting case study of tendencies under the mildest of circumstances.

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