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Issue 186 - Walmart is Coming
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
Publication: Mishpacha Magazine

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Imagine that you were born and raised in a small farming town with a population of five thousand people. Life was simple there, and you decided to raise your children in that rural setting. You married and shortly thereafter opened a hardware store, which, over the years, met your growing family’s financial needs. You never needed to advertise or market your store much, as you had a monopoly on the hardware business in your town. After all, the closest city and shopping center was thirty miles away.

Then, virtually overnight, your peaceful existence was shaken to the core when the Walmart Corporation announced their intention to open a ‘mega-store’ ten miles down the road from your home. You were understandably frightened, as you knew that countless mom-and-pop stores in thousands of communities across the United States went bankrupt shortly after a Walmart branch opened nearby, as they were simply unable to compete with the dramatically lower prices and enhanced selection that their competition’s high-volume stores offered.

The fear and uncertainty that reigned in the aftermath of the shocking news galvanized the town’s residents to action. An elected official organized a meeting of all local business owners. Efforts began to stall the process in court, and a letter-writing campaign to the Governor asking him to thwart Walmart’s project was initiated. However, it was all for naught as ground was eventually broken and the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new store was suddenly only ten months away.

Once the inevitability of this project became apparent, you and your wife went through the classic phases of the Kübler-Ross grief cycle, along the lines of someone who had been diagnosed, chas v’shalom, G-d forbid, with a fatal illness:

1) Denial – This can’t be happening

2) Anger – Why is this happening?

3) Bargaining – Please don’t let this happen

4) Depression/Resignation – We are so very sad this is happening

5) Acceptance – Look; this is going to happen; let’s deal with this challenge effectively.

Once you reached the acceptance stage (not all do, as many grieving people remain in denial or one of the other phases), you and your fellow storeowners began planning for ‘life after Walmart.’ A number of community leaders formed a committee whose mission it was to travel the country and explore the best practices of towns nationwide who responded effectively to the opening of a Walmart branch nearby. While the committee was doing its due diligence, public brainstorming sessions were held weekly with all local residents invited and where any and all ideas that may help strengthen local businesses were freely discussed and considered.

One month later, the committee members returned with a mixed report. Their research indicated that Walmart’s imminent arrival was in fact an existential threat to their town’s economic survival, as many communities they visited watched their downtown business centers turn into virtual ghost towns once Walmart opened its doors. However, there were successful models to follow – cities that survived and thrived despite the threat of a Walmart opening nearby. Those communities had one thing in common – they developed and executed effective, broad-based plans of action.

Inspired by the sage advice of the committee members, many initiatives were implemented that quite literally saved the town’s viability. A community council was formed that began hosting events designed to build civic pride. A local congressman secured a state grant to revitalize the downtown shopping area. Pressure was exerted on the local police department to crack down and eradicate the petty street crime that plagued the business district. The Mayor spearheaded an advertising campaign that highlighted the positive core values of their town. While all this was happening, a local philanthropist funded an initiative designed to help local merchants and artists sell their wares over the Internet. The results exceeded even his expectations, as quite a number of the residents developed profitable ventures over the web. These proactive steps allowed the town to survive the onslaught of a colossal competitor and, in fact, emerge a stronger and more vibrant community. Chalk one up for the good guys.

Now for the bad news. I suggest that there are striking parallels between the Walmart scenario discussed above and the state of affairs as it relates to the chinuch of our children in today’s rapidly changing times.

You see, in the ‘marketplace of ideas,’ our Torah community was like that small town in rural America for two generations. Our children, teens, and many of our adults did almost all their intellectual shopping on our ‘Main Street.’ Sure, they were individuals who went elsewhere to browse and purchase. But they were just that, individuals.

Then, about ten years ago, a mega-competitor came to town – the Internet. Galvanized into action, we effectively raised awareness about the dangers it poses to our children. But having Internet-free or Internet-protected homes and delaying the age when our children gain access to cell phones is only one (crucial) component of an effective policy, as this does nothing to help teens and adults deal with ‘Walmart’ once they leave the safety our homes.

Additionally, I think that lots of us are looking in the wrong direction in understanding the enormous challenge that new and evolving technology presents. Many look at the immoral content of the Internet as the primary adversary as today’s version of Yakov Avinu’s battle with the angel of Eisav. I beg to differ. From my vantage point, our generation’s challenge is to prepare our children (and ourselves as adults) to maintain our Torah values and hashkafos, fundamental beliefs, in the open arena of ideas that technology provides nowadays.

I think of the Internet not in terms of a mobile red-light district, but rather like the Haskalah on steroids.

When people bemoan the challenges of the Internet to me, I silently categorize them along the lines of the five grief stages noted above:

1) Denial – Baruch Hashem, our teens (adults) don’t use the Internet

2) Anger – How could such a horrible thing happen to our children?

3) Bargaining – Let’s daven that the Internet does not cause more kids to go off the derech (I would like to point out that this is a most appropriate response. However, just like Yaakov Avinu prepared for Eisav in three ways; with a gift, tefilah, and a battle plan – so too, I think that tefilah is an important component of a multi-pronged approach. But we cannot rely on tefilah alone to address this existential threat to our mesorah.)

4) Depression/Resignation – The [challenges presented by the] Internet is a gezeirah, an edict from Heaven, and it is so very sad that we are losing so many kids because of it. But what can we do besides keeping it out of our homes?

5) Acceptance – Look; the Internet is here to stay; let’s continue to shield our homes and children as best we can. But at the same time, we must deal with this incredible challenge effectively in as many ways as we can.

I do not have the time or inclination to assign hard numbers to which of the five stages are the most common among people who speak to me; but I would say that denial is by far most frequent, followed by depression, bargaining, acceptance and anger.

My friends, we are running out of time to slide over to the acceptance phase and develop a coherent, multi-phased approach to these unprecedented challenges. The phenomenon of off-the-derech teens and adults who are, "All Dressed up with Nowhere to Go" that I wrote about in the previous column is just the tip of the iceberg, I’m afraid.

Walmart is coming. In fact, it has already opened its doors – and is planning to expand.

Some suggestions of my ‘committee’ to deal with its presence will appear in my next few columns.

© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

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