Setting the Table: Service Versus Hospitality

I love watching cooking shows in my spare time.  Although I cannot eat in any of America’s top restaurants, I find something deeply satisfying about watching people prepare a delicious meal, whether I am debating the candidates on Top Chef, letting my mouth water at the dishes consumed on Adam Richman’s Man Versus Food, or simply catching a random demonstration on the Food Network or Travel Channel.

This week, I am reading Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table.  Meyer, one of the most successful restaurateur’s in the United States, describes how he came to create some of the most innovative restaurants in New York City, and how each restaurant fits within a guiding philosophy of how one should engage in hospitality.    Meyer argues that there is a fundamental difference between “service,” the delivery of a product, and “hospitality,” how one feels when he or she receives a product.   Meyer writes:

“Understanding the distinction between service and hospitality has been at the foundation of our success. Service is the technical delivery of a product. Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel. Service is a monologue—we decide how we want to do things and set our own standards for service. Hospitality, on the other hand, is a dialogue. To be on a guest’s side requires listening to that person with every sense, and following up with a thoughtful, gracious, appropriate response. It takes both great service and great hospitality to rise to the top.”

When I read Meyer’s quote, I found myself thinking about the analogies one can make between the hospitality industry and Jewish organizations.   On the one hand, anyone can receive a service from a Jewish organization, whether it is religious school education, support from a social service agency, or pastoral care when someone is sick.   On the other hand, how receiving that service makes someone feel will determine whether or not what the Jewish organization provides enters the realm of “hospitality.” Using terminology from Jewish prayer, service is the keva of an organization, the technical delivery of products, while hospitality is the kavannah, the extent to which the service is provided in a way that is thoughtful and caring.

If we want to take Meyer’s philosophy seriously, we must ask ourselves whether or not the Jewish organizations we care about provide service or hospitality, whether they engage in monologue or dialogue.  How we answer this question will say a great deal about whether or not the Jewish Community feels ready to go out and engage the Jews of the twenty-first century.    All the rest is commentary…

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