Tabernacles and Cubicles: Orthodox and navigating the business world

Many Jews might say there is a palpable strain between being observant and being in the American workforce. We Orthodox Jews often have a different mindset or background than the typical American, which can make connecting with colleagues difficult. However, you can relate to your co-workers and survive the 9-5 foxhole even with your religious differences. Here are some helpful tips for being the observant Jew at the office.

  1. Don’t Compromise

Don’t bend to social pressures. You don’t need to have the food they bring in if it makes you uncomfortable at all religiously. Set boundaries and don’t bend. If you tell your co-workers, “I can’t eat anything you’ve made at home” and they bring in cut apples, hold by the standard in order to avoid confusion in the future when they bring in an apple strawberry parfait. Another good standard is to pick a time you can leave for Shabbat year round. Picking a time and sticking with it will save you from explaining yourself later.

“Yoni, why are you leaving at 2 p.m.? “

“It’s for Sabbath, Mr. Johnson.”

“Last week you left at 3.”

“Well, last week was daylight savings time.”

“What does Benjamin Franklin have to do with your religion?”

“Nothing, it’s just that the times changed”

“And what about last month, you left consistently at 5 p.m. every Friday.”

“Yeah, but the times changed.”

Explaining yourself constantly will become tiring particularly when you have to explain it to multiple people every week. For instance, based on sunset during December you decide to leave at 2:15. You can do some cooking Thursday night and get home on Friday to finish getting ready. During the summer, try to leave no later than 3. They only difference would be that you have more time to prep for Shabbat on Friday. Pick a time and stick with it year round. Pick standards and stick with them.

  1. Don’t be embarrassed

Don’t be embarrassed about your practices. Kashrut will be the biggest example during the workweek. If people bring food in to share don’t say I can’t have any or try to avoid being around food or make a vague excuse. Say, “yeah, it’s not kosher, but it looks great.” When asked how your weekend was don’t just talk about Sunday, say that you ate with friends or whatever on Sabbath/Saturday. And when asked about a holiday, don’t be sheepish about talking about your religious practices. Open up the conversation.

  1. Don’t excuse, explain

This is a follow up to the above comment. If you shouldn’t be sheepish or awkward when answering questions, then what is a good response? Concise and clear explanation. Now to do this you’ll of course need to know good explanations and what to leave out. You’ll mostly be asked about kashrut and different holidays. Here’s an instance, when explaining kashrut, you don’t need to go into smaller details like Bitul B’Sheeshim. We have complicated lifestyles and you don’t need to share every detail but share enough to inform those around you.

  1. Or La’Goyim

This is a tenant in our faith that is talked about fairly often, but no one ever specifically discusses putting it into practice. It’s actually enjoyable to put into practice but can be a treacherous road. You will often be the first orthodox Jew someone would meet and sometimes the first Jew they’ve met at all. In those instances you will represent the entirety of our people. It’s a big responsibility but you can handle it. Be kind, courteous, and know that, especially for the guys, you will be recognizable as a Jew when you act poorly.

  1. Volunteer Sundays and some holidays

Working when you don’t have to offers a few benefits. First, it lets your co-workers know that you aren’t taking off chagim because you’re slacking off. It shows work ethic. Second, if possible, you can use the extra hours to cover some of the time lost taking off for chagim.

  1. Know your vocabulary

Communicating religious practices, tenant, or beliefs is often untried ground and there is not always a perfect word to express a part of our faith. In these instances being clear is imperative. One wants to avoid preconceived notions caused by using words that might be misconstrued in different context. For instance, the word “Sabbath” is not too common, so it is a benign word to use. Overall, modern Christians don’t have preconceived notions of what is “Sabbath” observance. Another example of a good term would be a “religious ritual” such as seder. Ceremony is more regularly used in other religions but “ritual” is not as typical. A counter example would be “holiday”. Holiday is used to refer to religious holidays, government holidays, and in the UK “holiday” refers to any sort of vacation one takes. Holiday in the non-Jewish perspective is relaxation with family, large dinners, and taking off work. Though we also have those aspects to our religion, the term “holiday” doesn’t communicate the responsibilities we have on chag. A better term to use might be “festival”. It is regular enough, used in terms of differing ethnic festivals, but abnormal enough that it doesn’t hold a place in the mind of most Americans. Use clear terms and vocabulary that your colleagues won’t misunderstand within their frame of mind.

  1. Explain your practices.

Hand in hand with having good terms is letting your co-workers know your religious responsibilities. This involves informing them about your restrictions, such as not using electricity or answering the phone. Clarify that on chagim you have involved services and ceremonies. The more you show that you are involved with your religion the more your colleagues will respect you for it.

  1. Don’t assume a last name, don’t let others assume

Don’t assume the Blank-stein in your office is Jewish. Either they are Jewish in which case they might feel uncomfortable speaking with someone more religious than them or they might not strongly identify with Judaism. On the other hand, they are not Jewish and assuming something about them might be awkward for you both. Not letting others assume things about you and your Jewish practices is also an important way to get in front of some minor Antisemitism that might come your way. 

  1. Be upfront about days you’ll need to take off.

Give as much foresight as possible to your office is a good policy and remind them as the days get nearer.

  1. You’ll be off much of Tishrei, Make sure your co-workers can function without you.

Keep track of the work you do leading up to the chagim. When you are getting close to Tishrei create an email or document to inform your coworkers what needs to be done while you are away. Immediately catch up with work and help colleagues prep for your next absence. Letting work slip might unfortunately affect your reputation within the office. Chag and work balance is manageable with forethought and a bit of planning.

  1. Schtus co-workers might say

There are a lot of random comments you might receive. It will be a good idea to have canned responses for questions/comments. Here are a few examples.

“But I have a Jewish friend and they don’t…”

Here is when you represent a certain type of Judaism. Just explain that there are different levels of religious observance. You might belong to a larger or lower level of observance than the person to whom you’re being compared. Explain it in terms Christianity. Protestants and Catholics are both Christian but have different practices. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox: All Jews, but different levels of observance

“What is kosher?” “We’ll just have a rabbi bless it”

In terms of kashrut it is a challenge of two parts. One, contradict what your co-workers think of kosher food. Two, inform them of what they need to know. I have gotten comments ranging from the rabbi quote above to “you can eat that, it’s not pork” to something along the lines of “is it like being vegetarian?”. When you need to contradict someone, don’t offend or make them feel dumb for not know. This information about our laws is very foreign to them. The idea that kosher is just having a rabbi bless your food might seem ridiculous to you, but non-Jews might not know better. Use a friendly, matter-of-fact tone. When explaining kashrut, I simplify and break it down into three or four points. One, we can only have certain animals (feel free to inform them of the specific animal characteristics). 2. We can’t mix dairy foods and meat foods. 3. We can’t use or eat from utensils that were used opposing the previous two rules. The fourth thing I discuss if the conversation leads there is just the concept of heschers on packaged food.

“Shalloem”

It’s a nice bit of comradery. Don’t think into it too much, just smile and wave.

“I’m not saying all Jews, but…”

Nothing good ever happens after this sentence. It is anti-semitic and you don’t have to take it. Confront these inappropriate comments. If the person doesn’t know that is offensive, inform them politely, but inform them. And if it escalates you can and should speak with your boss or supervisor about this behavior.

“Purim/Hannukah/Passover is just the Jewish Halloween/Christmas/Easter, right?”

I have had non-Jews know I was Jewish and still be surprised that I don’t believe in Jesus. Some people really just don’t know enough about our religion so they compare it to the only thing they can. It is a good place to start that none of the Jewish holidays are related in theme to Christian or secular holidays. An added comment you can make if the conversation is going well is that we don’t even function on the same calendar as the secular world.

  1. Know practices of some other religions.

Having knowledge of other religions gives you the ability to relate your religion to other people. Additionally, there are some odd religious practices. You don’t need to feel like the odd one out or that other people have “regular” religious while yours is out of the ordinary. That is not the case.

  1. Still go to a work function even if you can’t eat.

You want to have the connections that work events can give. These networks can advance you professionally. Furthermore, it goes without saying that being the odd one out at work can make your time there less tolerable. Socializing even when the events are suited for you can still make your more a member of the office.

  1. Always be open to questions. Ignorance isn’t necessarily rudeness

Some people won’t now the right question to ask or how ask a question well. Always be forthcoming and open to inquiry. If you feel comfortable answering and safely discussing religions in the workplace, people will feel more comfortable with you practicing your religion openly.

About the Author
Binyamin Besser has lived in Jerusalem, Modi'in, Ohio, Maryland, and Tennessee. He attained a Bachelors Degree in Engineering from the University of Maryland. He currently works as a contracting Engineer.
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