Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Wal-Mart's unexpected benefits

I don't think I've ever been more proud of my little area of the country before now. Today the New York Times has a really great story about the impact Wal-Mart is having on the religious makeup of Northwest Arkansas, specifically on the number of Jews arriving in the area, the opening of a new synagogue in Bentonville, and Bentonville's actual embracing of that diversity rather than fighting it.

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.

And then there's this segment, with a quote from a guy who is actually my mom's boss, and one of her friends:

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."

It doesn't seem like a big deal to a lot of people, I'm sure, but after spending 19 years of my life in this area of the country, and feeling like I was drowning for about 15 of those years, reading articles like this is actually really exciting.

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