GLENCOE – It’s not everyday that a senior rabbi of a prominent North Shore congregation decides to become an Uber driver, but Steven Stark Lowenstein was looking for a new experience.
“I had no idea what it would yield and what the message was supposed to be,” said Lowenstein, who is the senior rabbi at the reform congregation Am Shalom in Glencoe. He had used the popular car service company on occasion and marveled at how Uber was changing how people interact with each other and do business.
“To me it was a timely business and an opportunity to explore what is happening in the world,” he explained.
He met all sorts of different people as an Uber driver, kept a journal on his smart phone after every ride, and was amazed by the company’s technology. He ultimately decided to use the experience in his sermon on the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah.
“As clergy we can find holiness in lots of different ways. There were some moments as an Uber driver I connected with people in a powerful way that doesn’t always happen everyday,” he said. Lowenstein hopes to inspire others to try something completely out of the box, noting that meaning can be found in many different experiences.
And he may consider driving for Uber again and possibly videotaping the experience.
“I think there is more to learn. I think there are some life lessons that I didn’t write about,” he said.
Below is Lowenstein’s sermon where he reflected on his experience as an Uber driver.
How many of you are here tonight because someone you love asked you to be here? Or because someone you love told you to be here? How many of you are here to connect with the Jewish community, your culture, your history, your tradition? Or to feel connected to your family, whether they are sitting next to you or are across the country? How many of you are here tonight because this is just what Jewish people do on Rosh Hashanah?
I’ve been thinking a lot about why we are compelled to do things simply because large numbers of people convince us it’s the right thing to – even on nights like tonight, when the ultimate journey is one of introspection and exploration.
Tonight we are starting a journey. We venture out on our own so that we can have new encounters or experiences and gain new wisdom. But sometimes, we can’t have those experiences until we are willing to leave our familiar places and journey forward to the unknown. After all, our traditional role model for journeying to new places and new wisdom is our forefather Abraham, who was told by God to “lech l’cha”: “Go forth from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” His was a solitary venture: “lech l’cha”. What that phrase really means is to “go to yourself.”
In other words, look inside and find your potential. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner suggests, “Go back to your essence in order to find out what you are really made of.” This personal journey is so much of what these high holy days are about, yet many of us don’t arrive to this moment as individuals. Instead, we are swept into it, passes in hand, as a collective, as part of a group momentum telling us this is the right place to be.
The truth is that this interplay between group push and personal belief is at work in our culture every minute of every day.
So, in order to prepare for this holiday, to more fully explore what compels the mass mentality versus the individual mindset, and to explore the journeys that I take – that we all take – I did what any rabbi would do: I went undercover. I answered an ad and got sucked into the action. Everyone was doing it and I felt I couldn’t miss out. So I went online and signed up to be an Uber driver.
For those of you who don’t know, Uber is a ride-sharing app for your phone that links passengers with drivers, just like taxi cabs, but it is changing the way we go from point A to B. What better way to leave the comfort of my own home and get some unique on-the-job training? “Lech l’cha”: Go forth at $2.40 to start, plus 10 cents a mile after that.
In a matter of three days, I uploaded all the necessary information: a copy of my driver’s license, my proof of insurance, the type of car I drive and my bank account information. All this, without ever speaking directly with an actual person. Then I kind of watched the 13 minute orientation film, completed the application and had a brief wait time as they ran a background and credit check. I passed, and my Uber partner app was on my phone. “Lech l’cha”: Go forth!
And then the fun began. As I hope all of you know, I love my job and give it 100 percent every day – but this was a new opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. I can totally empathize with the Uber driver who recently posted on the Driver’s Forum (I’m now a member): “It’s odd that sitting in an air conditioned car would be so draining, but I’m still in my Uber honeymoon phase and the app is making me lose sleep. It’s weird, but the ‘ping’ I receive when someone requests a ride is like a drug – I get an instant endorphin rush every time.”
This was true for me as well, and I was swept into the sea of drivers clamoring to serve. I, too, got nervous, as every ride was different. I never knew what to expect, who I would meet or where I would go. (Maybe it’s not that different from being a rabbi!) My first few rides in the suburbs were quite routine – high school students and groups of friends going to each other’s homes.
I received my first tip on an $8 fare taking a young man from the Winnetka train station to his girlfriend’s house in Kenilworth. A $10 tip – he was in a good mood. I was floating. My only other tip was $8 on a $20 fare. I’m sure it was no accident that I made a total of $18 in tips.
I quickly saw that I was a little too recognizable in these parts, as evidenced one night when I happened to pick up one of Noah’s volleyball teammates. Without realizing, he jumped in the front seat with three friends, greeted me and then promptly added, “Hey, you’re Noah’s dad.
I was at your house for Passover!” They also left an empty pizza box in the back of my car. And so, I needed to expand my field.
“Lech l’cha”: To Chicago!
In this unique engagement between two or more strangers, I confess, sometimes I was a high school gym teacher, a businessman between jobs or just a guy trying to find himself. Once I was even a retired minor league baseball player. I was From Glencoe or Lake Forest, Mundelein or Lincoln Park. But for the several passengers who really probed, I was just a rabbi learning about Uber, hoping to write and reflect on the experience. Over the 40 rides I had, I kept a log where I marveled at the mass momentum that brought these Uber riders to ping me, and at the unique stories they had to share once they got in the back of my car.
Some people wanted to talk, some people didn’t. I suppose it depended on how they viewed the experience: Some wanted to be “friends” with me, and get to know me. Some didn’t want me to say a word – I was just their chauffeur.
I drove a young man who shuttles between Winnetka and Lincolnwood, alternating which divorced parent he stays with each night.
I drove a Hollywood actress and her boyfriend to Midway Airport on her way back to filming.
I drove Luis and his family (including his grandma, who had never been in an Uber before) from Ogilvie station to North Avenue Beach on the day of the Air and Water Show (not a fun day to drive around, even at 1.4 surge pricing).
I turned my meter off early for Liza, the pediatric oncologist from Nashville in town for cancer research meetings.
I had a blast with the three incoming Northwestern Law students (or so they said. They thought I was a minor league baseball player!) who were apartment-hunting. I can’t wait to see what kind of lawyers they turn out to be.
I met Carl from New York, whose dad’s new wife’s son is a rabbi here in Chicago. Of course, I gave him several suggestions on where to attend High Holy Day services in New York (not an average recommendation from your Uber driver!).
I had a great late night conversation with Annie on our way to Oak Park (why I was driving to Oak Park at 1:30 in the morning is still baffling to me). Annie, on the other hand, was a recent college grad working in the prison system telling me what it was like to talk with murderers.
I talked with Anna from Macedonia who works two jobs to make money. She has been here in America for two months, loves it and only Ubers when it rains.
I gave Megan and her friends a tour of Chicago on their way to the Billy Joel concert.
And then there was Tabitha and Amanda, Jonah, Monika and dozens of others, each one with something to teach or share from the backseat of my jeep, whether they spoke with me or not. I loved hearing their stories and was amazed by their comfort in sharing so much with me. It really is all about customer service.
I wound up doing just over 40 trips and earning $335.05, which will certainly be donated to charity. I earned Uber (which is now a $50 billion company in 300 cities) $87 dollars last month for the 20 percent they took off the top, although they did pay me a $50 bonus for completing the first 25 rides in one week. I also earned the City of Chicago $40 through the Chicago Transit Tax and Safe Ride Fare. While the ads say drivers can earn up to $90 an hour, I earned just over $11, not counting gas, snack food and insurance for the 25 hours I was online. The good news is that I do have a 4.8 star rating out of 5. That’s one thing that made me very nervous – if your rating drops below 4.5, Uber can shut you out of the system. Uber does offer a $200 referral bonus for every new driver I recommend…. so if you’re interested…I’m just saying…
In many ways my experience as an Uber driver was stunning: a brief but telling example of the impact a mass movement has on us. It was a small window into a big phenomenon, whereby members of a collective group, prompted by rapidly advancing technology, are compelled to take part in something that starts changing the way we do business and interact with each other.
There we were: a video-trained Uber driver armed with GPS, a crowd of travelers convinced by media hype that this is the newest, most technically advanced and best way to safely get from Point A to Point B and because we all agreed that it’s OK, it worked. On top of that, for many, a fleeting moment of sharing transpired – at no extra cost.
“Lech l’cha”: A certain kind of crowdsourcing is putting us on a new journey to discover who we really are.
Crowdsourcing is “the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community, rather than from traditional employees or suppliers.…” (so says Webster’s online dictionary). Though Uber’s compelling of the crowd is not for “contribution,” but instead for a “transaction”, it still leverages this uncanny notion that if you can get enough people to believe that what you are doing is the right thing, even to suspend their previous beliefs to the contrary, you can create a new experience that no one thought possible.
For years I told my children, “Never talk to strangers or get into a stranger’s car.” The crowd has turned this message into: “You can trust an online-monitored stranger, working hard to earn extra cash, to pick you up in the middle of the night and drive you around.”
A crowd can turn “You can get a ride quickly, just for yourself, anytime you want” into the hopeful belief of Uber’s founder himself, who sees in Uber the potential for a smoothly functioning, instant-gratification economy powered by the smartphone, as the remote control for life: “If we can get you a car in five minutes, we can get you anything in five minutes.”
Does that scare me? Absolutely. It’s hard to imagine a world where the crowd agrees to define our smart devices as the remote controls of our lives and we agree. And yet, my son Ben can log onto glassdoor.com and, along with millions of others, choose companies he might apply to based on data analytics he finds there: company positioning, employee reviews, earnings and cultural data. My son Noah can log onto ratemyprofessor.com and learn what the crowd says about his college professors before he even signs up for their classes. We are now swept up in a world where the voice of the collective, more so than that of the individual, carries us to the places we want to be (or the places we think we should be).
Consider the crowd-approved dwelling marketplace called Airbnb. The Washington Post’s Emily Badger recently wrote, “Maybe I don’t have all that much trust in one woman renting her home on Airbnb, but I do trust the aggregated input of the 24 people who’ve given her high marks, so I know I’m not checking into the Bates Motel.”
I’m sure we all have our own examples of community, marketplaces, online meet-up sites or charitable collectives where the power of many voices somehow empowers or validates the experience you have with them.
And maybe you, like I, have stopped long enough to ponder what impact the crowdsourced experience is having on our genuine individual journey.
The wisdom of Judaism may offer an answer.
The collective voice isn’t new to our tradition at all. The Talmud is a perfect example of a form of ancient “crowdsourcing”. If you look at a page of Talmud, you will see a verse or two of ancient Jewish law called Mishnah. This text is followed by some commentary on those verses by some rabbinic sages at a later date. This is called Gemorrah. Arranged all around the margins and edges of that same page are various commentaries about these same verses by scholars over several more centuries. Each page of Talmud is literally a centuries-old set of conversations, all lending themselves to the conversation of beliefs and understanding that we still wrestle with today.
It is through this conversation, brought to us by an ancient crowd, but engaged in by you and me here today, that we can find the window of opportunity for our own individual journey.
Maimonides uses the concept of crowdsourcing to describe the very essence of Jewish time, the calendar and the holidays. He writes in his Mishne Torah that “it is the establishment of the calendar by the inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael that establishes a day as Rosh Chodesh (the first of the month) or a festival, not our calculations of the calendar.”
Maimonides is saying that when it comes to determining the Jewish calendar and holidays, it is not astronomical calculations which ultimately determine this, but the behavior of the “crowd”, namely, the crowd of Jews living in the Land of Israel. Again, we look to the crowd to agree on when we celebrate. But what happens to you right now, in your seat on this Rosh Hashanah? That is where the crowd releases the individual to his or her personal experience.
That’s how a collective tide makes Uber an overnight sensation, but only an individual can choose to share a thought or a story from the back seat of a car. A crowd-approved connection site can get two strangers to suspend disbelief long enough to meet, but only what we learn person-to-person leads to love and marriage. As proof, probably half of my weddings are now for couples that met on J-date and, yes, on Tinder.
And so it is with Judaism and these Days of Awe. I believe it is OK if perhaps you were swept here tonight by a crowd that compelled you to be here, believing in the power of this moment, or simply willing to suspend your disbelief to join in with the community. The collective clearly pushes us forward. It has the power to bring us here, but the magic of what happens from this moment on is your journey. It’s your conversation, and the meaning that grows out of your experience is sacred and holy.
The crowd may give us the leap of faith to join in, but tonight, in this sanctuary, as individuals we make the choice to open ourselves and uncover who we are and who we want to be in the year ahead.
“Lech l’cha”: Go forth and find who you are destined to be.
With the help of the new prayer books that we are using for the first time and will use again on Yom Kippur, as well as the beautiful music, I hope that each one of you, in your own unique way, can find the message or chord that strikes you. I hope you’ll be able to connect to the inner conversation you have come here to have, in a language that is comfortable and engaging.
The time is now. “Lech l’cha.” Go forth.
As I was putting the final touches on the sermon on Friday afternoon, I received the following email from Uber, in between emails with instructions on how to deal with intoxicated riders and how to earn extra money in the rain:
I noticed you’re one of our top partners in Chicago, but you haven’t been driving with Uber lately. Wanted to personally reach out and see if you had any questions or concerns, or if you needed any support from the team.
Uber demand in Chicago is growing every month, and there’s a big opportunity to earn even more this weekend helping people get around the city. Let me know if there’s anything we can help with to get you back on the road.
Sorry, I’ve been a little busy this week and yes, I’ve been shirking my driving duties. In my own way, though, I hope I am helping people get around this weekend on their own individual journeys.
You are right – it does feel really good to be back on the road and part of the team. I know that the demand is highest for Uber over New Year’s so please rest assured that on this New Year’s this Uber partner is trying to do a little more than most to provide comfortable and safe travels for ALL of his passengers.
Truth be told I’m OFF the grid. Besides, you couldn’t afford my surge pricing this holiday.
Tonight we are starting a journey. We venture out on our own so that we can have new encounters, have new experiences and gain new wisdom. But sometimes, we can’t have those experiences until we are willing to leave our familiar places and journey forward into the unknown alone or with a large group of people.
“Lech l’cha”: On this New Year, go forth and discover your true self.