Being a frum Jew at work: ‘what are you starring at?’

Working professionally in the real unsheltered world can pose many challenges for us ‘obvious Jews’. We’re obvious because we wear a kippah, have dangling white strings poking out, wear skirts…always, or have the exact same haircut every single day. Plus we don’t eat ‘their food’ or go out for drinks Friday night.

The inspected vessel
As baalei teshuva one of our challenges is to be proud of our new garb and being visually identifiable as Jewish. It brings with it challenges that I’m sure all visually distinct cultures go through when they’re a minority in a generally white western secular society.

I often get ‘the glance’. It’s a 3-8 second look at my hairline. An investigation of the reports and rumors. Is it or isn’t it a wig? Does she or doesn’t she have hair underneath? I love the looks for it makes me proud of where I have come from and the realization that I’m far enough in my baal teshuva journey to be totally comfortable with these inspections. I figure that if I’m frum enough to wear a sheital, I should at least enjoy the old secular perspectives, which I can completely empathize with having been in their shoes not that long ago. I’m not bold or extroverted enough to catch people out on their stares but sometimes I daydream about their reactions if I did.

I have an open door policy about Judaism in the workplace. I’m proud of who I am and everyone knows I’m Jewish so if they have questions, just ask. It works well and I find that those daring enough or who know me a bit better will often come and chat with me about ‘this Jewish thing they saw’ on some movie or documentary. I won’t always have answers but I do my best to show people the answers exist and they are not as weird as they may imagine.

Holy light into mundane attitudes
What’s important is what the vessel carries: the inside and how we carry who we are and our Jewish values into the workplace. The effects we can have in the workplace, not by preaching Judaism, but by being more refined than those around us, can have far reaching effects. Around me they are more careful not to swear, and while I find this pretty amusing, I secretly love that they somehow sense the inappropriateness of it.

It’s a huge responsibility to be a light in the secular collective. As card carrying visible Jews we have this responsibility whether we like it or not. It’s our challenge to excel and it is a challenge. Gossip and talking behind one another’s backs is so commonplace its a bit like a school yard with no rules. Who your friends with does matter. So us, as Jews, who value positive speech and have many rules against gossip and slander, have to navigate to a different tune. We need to have planned lines about how to avoid these conversations or at least not make them worse. I’ve been in my role for a long time and I can tell you that if someone wants to talk, they’ll talk.

Many of you may, like me, be the only Jew or at least practicing Jew in the whole office. I’m also the only Jew many have ever met. To them, I am Judaism. It’s a scary thought and a heavy burden, but one we need to embrace. The memories and impact we leave in our day to day encounters at work will be the ones they remember. If you are stingy, Jews are stingy. If you are considerate, Jews are considerate.

Areas we may be judged on in the workplace
1. Punctuality. Be at meetings on time.
2. Compassion. Be able to see the others perspective and understand how you impact them.
3. Accountability. Ensure you take action where you need to and don’t blame others.
4. Respect. Acknowledging that we’re all different and of value no matter the background.
5. Honesty. Being real and above board, especially with finances.
6. Integrity. Doing whatever you said you’ll do, not wasting time
7. Relationships. Being a team player, positive attitude, and not participating in gossip or slander (no matter how much you agree).
8. Flexibility. Pitching in when someone else can’t. Not throwing a fit when there’s no kosher options at the function…again.

Think about the messages you send out. Become who you want to be as a Jew but don’t forget to take that you into the workplace. They are watching, they are judging, and at the end of the day, so is Hashem. May the journey be an easy one, and the light on others positive.


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