Radical Hospitality:
Gleaning Jewish Lessons from
Restaurateur Danny Meyers

By Lisa Bodziner, Executive Director, Towson University Hillel

A mentor of mine suggested last spring, that I read one book to set the tone for our school year. Now in early August, I am almost finished with her assignment and ready to launch an unforgettable year at Towson University Hillel.

Growing up in Savannah, Georgia, I must admit it took me a while to learn that the cultural norms of how I was raised, weren’t norms everywhere. I assumed for example, everyone had 15 best friends over for cocktail hour every night, that everyone’s house was always filled with new friends, old friends, family and even strangers that quickly made connections.

So, what can I say? When I entered the world and work of Hillel, becoming accustomed to words like Radical Hospitality and Big Tent Judaism, it felt almost natural, like I was home again. Isn’t this what we are meant to do, warmly welcome anyone into our space? I began to ask myself, where’s the nuance? Where’s the radical? To warmly embrace anyone looking, searching and asking, wasn’t that just, in essence, how I was raised? Setting the Table by Danny Meyer is a must read for any business owner, manager and/or CEO. Setting the Table is about the transforming power of hospitality in business.

While it is not rooted in Jewish education, the concepts that Danny re-introduce to us are key and essentially Jewish. The foundation of what the Hillel movement and so many other Jewish organizations in our community are grounded in is exactly that – hospitality, warm embrace and acceptance in our everyday business transactions with people to create connections and growth with people.

Danny shares in his introduction, “business, like life, is all about how you make people feel. It’s that simple, and it’s that hard.” And Danny is correct. In my years of experience in being an educator, program designer and Executive Director, how simple, yet challenging it is, to engage people, all people, to get connected to their own organizational mission, feel great about the product, vision and future.

Danny explores in his book how, being a restaurant owner and business manager, one must lead by intention, rather than intuition. He writes about how focusing on guests, community, suppliers and investors, one must always set the priorities and do so with “enlightened hospitality.”

Danny, in his book sets the tone and shares with readers the long journey and what it took, what lessons he learned along the way and what values he continued to return to, in order to become the successful and current CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group.

As a Jewish educator and director of a Jewish organization, particularly being on a college campus, is it not imperative for our staff to warmly embrace, with radical hospitality, anyone that enters our space? At Towson University and specifically at our Hillel, students, faculty, donors, staff and board members come from all walks of life, have all different notions, connections and ideals for what it means to live and be Jewish. According to Danny, if we are setting the table in our organization properly, we are making room for anyone to sit and have a meal – and ENJOY themselves in that experience.

In the last few chapters of his book, Danny concludes, “The courage to grow demands the courage to let go. Whenever you expand in business – not just the restaurant business – the process is incredibly challenging, especially for leaders who first rose to the top because of their tendency to want to control all the details. You have to let go. You have to surround yourself with ambassadors – people who know how to accomplish goals and make decisions, while treating people the way you would. They’re comfortable expressing themselves within the boundaries of your business culture and content with the role they play in helping a larger team achieve its greatest potential success.”

Towson University and Towson University Hillel are in an incredible moment of transition and growth. This year will demand of us that our mission is clear and that along with our stakeholders, board members, parents, students, staff and all our ambassadors, we set the table with southern, radical and warm hospitality and that all are welcomed and enjoy a meal at our table and in our community.

Please be in touch.

Lisa Bodziner, Executive Director, Towson University – Hillel, lisa@towsonhillel.org

Lisa Bodziner’s Reading List Recommendations

Setting the Table – Danny Meyer
Next Generation Judaism – Rabbi Mike Uram
How’s Your Faith? – David Gregory

Podcasts: The Ballad of Billy Balls – iO Tillet Wright (not Jewishly themed)

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