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On Their Shoulders

I never dreamed that for me, a frum woman, working on Shabbos and Yom Tov would become a real issue as well — in 2019

Growing up in the spiritually privileged environment of late-20th century America, I never gave much thought to the challenges my European-born grandparents and great-grandparents must have faced in their quest to preserve Yiddishkeit after reaching the shores of this country. By the time I was born, in the late 1970s, the ability to live in America as a religious Jew and send your children to yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs was practically a given.

I knew that my great-grandfather had immigrated to the US from Poland in 1919 and had waited eight long years to bring over his wife and children, including my grandfather. But it wasn’t until my grandfather’s passing in 2005 that I discovered that he, and certainly his father, had been among the ranks of those who regularly lost their jobs for their refusal to work on Shabbos and Yom Tov. At his levayah, I learned that even after the US government enshrined the five-day workweek into law, circa 1940, religious rights in the workplace were far from guaranteed. Even if employees were no longer routinely expected to work on Shabbos in the 1940s, ’50s, and early ’60s, legally they did not have the right to leave work early on Friday afternoon or take off for Yom Tov.

Both my great-grandfather and my grandfather had worked in the garment industry as cutters. My grandfather’s brother started off as a cutter as well, but he later rose through the ranks in the garment workers’ union and became a union leader. Although he, like so many others in his generation, did not remain religious, he did help his brother, my grandfather, to find new jobs each time he was laid off for refusing to work on Yom Tov.

Appropriately, the section of the cemetery in which my grandfather was laid to rest was called Shomrei Shabbos, after the shul that had originally bought the plots in that area of the cemetery. My grandfather had not davened in that shul, but its name was a fitting tribute to him. Although he did not have the opportunity to learn in yeshivah, he sent his children to yeshivah and Bais Yaakov, and his sons went on to learn in kollel and become mechanchim. He merited to see all of his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren be shomrei Torah u’mitzvos, and his burial in the Shomrei Shabbos section was, to us, a testimony to his perseverance in holding tight to the mesorah even when it was difficult to do so.

Two generations removed from the challenges of my grandfather’s generation, I never dreamed that for me, a frum woman, working on Shabbos and Yom Tov would become a real issue as well — in 2019.

Some 20 years ago, I trained as a social worker in New York, where I worked for ten years before moving to a different state in 2012. In New York, I worked exclusively for frum employers, and after moving out of state, I ran a small, home-based business, so I never had any issue with taking off for Shabbos and Yom Tov.

Running my own business gave me the flexibility to be available for my children whenever they needed me. The business did not generate much profit, however, and between my husband’s income and mine, we barely covered the bills; we certainly couldn’t put aside any significant savings.

When my youngest child started first grade, I felt that the time was ripe for me to look for a full-day job. In a few short years, hopefully, we’d be starting to marry off children, and we needed to start putting aside money for weddings. Now that I was already in my forties, I was also starting to think ahead toward retirement, and it was important for me to take a job that would offer generous benefits in the long term. After carefully considering my options, I decided that a government job would be ideal for me.

After a bit of research, I unearthed a vacancy in the local office of the state government that was suited to my degree and experience. The job began at 8 a.m., which seemed perfect, as it meant that I would finish working by 4 and be home by 4:15, in time for my kids. I applied for the position online this past winter, uploading my résumé and other relevant documents, and about two months later I was called in for an interview.

At the end of the interview, I was asked for a list of references and told that if the decision was made to hire me, I would be called in for a hiring meeting. I thought to myself then that if I were called to such a meeting, I would bring along a list of Yamim Tovim when I would have to take off, along with the calendar dates of those holidays, so that my superiors would know about these days off from the get-go.

This past July, I received a phone call informing me that the state was interested in hiring me, pending the results of a drug test. I did the drug test, after which I received an e-mail from the state government asking if I was interested in taking the job and informing me that if I responded affirmatively, I would receive a hire letter via e-mail within five business days instructing me where, when, and to whom to report on my first day of work. I called the HR representative whose name appeared on the e-mail to ask when the hiring meeting would happen, but she said there would not be a meeting.

“This is our standard hiring procedure,” she assured me.

“I’m interested in taking the job,” I said, “but before I do, I want you to know that I’m an Orthodox Jew and will need to take days off for certain religious holidays, including several that will be coming up in the next couple of months.” I made it clear that taking off for my holidays would be nonnegotiable.

“Of course,” she replied. “You won’t be the first religious person we’ve hired. Just let your supervisor know right away, and it shouldn’t be a problem.” With that cleared up, I accepted the offer and waited for my hire letter.

The letter arrived several days later and instructed me to report to a local government office in late August. On my first day of work, I brought with me a list of all the Yamim Tovim throughout the year, complete with a brief description of what each Yom Tov was about and the dates when I would be absent for each one. I was a bit worried about having to take off for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Succos so soon after starting my job, but I figured I could always take off without pay.

The first person I met with in my new position as a state employee was the union representative, who sat down with me and reviewed all of my benefits. My first question, of course, was about taking time off for Yom Tov.

His head jerked upward. “Oh,” he said. “Um, well, let me see — some of these days are coming up fairly soon, before you’d be earning any time off. But let me take you over to the district manager, and we’ll discuss the days off with her.”

The deer-in-the-headlights look on his face made me uncomfortable.

“Will my religious rights be upheld?” I asked.

In response, he flipped through a manual on his desk to show me that it contained a section regarding religious rights. He then escorted me to the office of the district manager.

After the requisite initial pleasantries, the district manager glanced at the list I had prepared. “Do you have written confirmation that you are entitled to take these days off?” she asked.

“No,” I said, “but the hiring department told me it shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Well,” she said, “we’re going to have to look into it and get back to you.”

“No one told me anything about getting permission in writing,” I said uneasily. “Isn’t there a provision for religious rights?”

“It’s not so simple,” she responded. “If you take off days shortly after you begin working, you’ll have what’s called lost time.”

“I understand,” I said quickly. “I don’t expect to be paid for that time.”

She cocked her head. “I don’t think you understand what lost time means. As a new hire, you’re not allowed to accrue any lost time until you’ve worked a certain number of hours. If you do accrue lost time, you’re not in compliance with regulations, which is grounds for dismissal.”

Another unpleasant surprise awaited me during this meeting. I had assumed that because I would begin my job at eight in the morning, I would finish at four in the afternoon, after working an eight-hour day. But the district manager explained to me that union regulations required that I take a mandatory one-hour unpaid lunch break, which meant that I would have to be at the office from eight to five every day.

My mind raced to figure out the logistics. Thankfully, my parents lived nearby and were happy to help with the kids. Although it was disappointing to me that I would not be home for my children when they came home from school, it was really not a big deal for them to go straight to Bubby’s or be greeted at home by their teenaged sister.

But then it occurred to me that I had a bigger problem: What about Shabbos in the winter?

“I can stay until five most days,” I told the district manager, “but beginning in November I’m going to have to leave by 4 p.m. on Friday.”

Quickly, I added, “But I’m happy to come in early to make up the time.”

She frowned. “We’re not going to be able to change your schedule at this point,” she said. “These are the regulations, and we can’t make any exceptions for a new hire during the first year.”

“What if I work through lunch?” I suggested.

“Union regulations don’t allow that.”

Whew! I knew government offices were bureaucratic, but I had never realized how precisely they dotted every i and crossed every t.

“I’m going to speak to a labor law attorney and get back to you,” she said.

In the meantime, I decided to jump in and start working. It was still a full month to Yom Tov, and I figured that by that time things would fall into place. This was 21st-century America, after all, and people didn’t get fired from their jobs for not working on Yom Tov.

After I had worked a full week, the district manager called me in for a meeting. “I don’t like to leave people in the dark,” she said. “I just want you to know that I cannot approve your time off.”

My jaw dropped. “W-what do you mean?” I stammered.

“Well, you never got written approval of those days off, and I don’t have the authority to approve lost time for a new hire. And your leaving early on Fridays is going to result in more lost time, which I also can’t authorize.”

“I don’t understand,” I said slowly. “Am I not protected under religious discrimination laws?”

“The state is not a religious institution,” she said curtly, “and since your contract does not provide for time off, we have no obligation to grant you these days off. Besides, I can’t treat you differently from other workers here. Religious Christians in the office have asked to take off for holidays such as Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and I’ve had to turn down their requests as well.”

“But my holidays are different!” I argued. “I’m not allowed to work at all on those days. I can’t drive a car or use a computer or even sign my name!”

That line of reasoning did not budge her in the least.

“So what happens if I take the days off and accrue lost time?” I asked. “Will you lay me off?”

“I won’t do anything,” she said flatly. “And we’re not laying you off. You’re going to be fired.”

At this point, I started to become emotional. “What do you mean?” I said, fighting back tears. “How can you fire me for keeping my religion?”

“The final answer will come from the main government office in the state capital,” she stated. And with that, our meeting was over.

Considering our conversation a week earlier, none of this should have been a surprise to me, but still, her words hit me as a shock. Leaving her office, I felt devastated. I had already started my job, and I was enjoying it. The kids were back in school and the scheduling was working out smoothly. Why is this happening to me? I wondered. What is my nisayon here? Hashem opened the door for me to get a job — why is He taking it away from me just as I’m starting?

I thought of my grandfather and how he was repeatedly laid off for his refusal to work on Yom Tov, and suddenly I was filled with new respect for him. I was distressed at the prospect of giving up my job even though I was not risking my livelihood; for me, all that was at stake was a second income that would provide a cushion for the family. Yet he had allowed himself to be fired repeatedly even when he had no idea how he would put bread on the table.

Humbled, I told myself that everything that happens is for a reason, and that whatever Hashem does is good for me.

With that in mind, I returned to the office, still upset but in a calmer frame of mind. While I was determined to do my hishtadlus to keep my job, I would work on having bitachon that whatever happened would be for the best. And even if I were fired come Succos, I figured I might as well earn whatever money I could until then.

In the meantime, I decided to do some research and find out what my religious rights really were. I spoke to a non-Jewish neighbor who worked as a public school teacher, and he expressed disbelief at what the district manager had said.

“I’m technically a state employee,” he said, “and if my Jewish coworkers are allowed to take off for their holidays, why can’t you? The government can’t maintain a double standard vis-à-vis its employees.”

“In my case, the issue is that I’m a new hire,” I explained. “I can’t accrue lost time before I’ve worked long enough to be entitled to days off.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” he replied. “What about a new teacher who begins the school year after Labor Day and has to take off for the Jewish new year immediately? You’re not the first person who’s been in this situation, and it can’t be that there’s no recourse. Besides, when they hired you, they didn’t say a word about not accruing lost time early on, so how can they fire you for taking off?”

Considering all this, I resolved that I would not allow myself to be fired without a fight. But for now, I was still waiting for an answer from the district manager, so I just went about doing my job and trying to make myself valuable as an employee.

The following week, the district manager called me in for another meeting. “Initially,” she began, “the directive we got from the state capital was that you cannot take time off, and that you would be penalized for lost time if you did. But then the question was sent higher up for verification, and it turns out that your religious rights are protected due to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, so long as they don’t impose undue hardship on your employer.

“I’ve been working for the state for 35 years,” she added, “and this is the first time I’ve come across this issue. But I’m happy to learn new things, and it seems that by law you can take off for your holidays without penalty. Just remember that going forward you will need to bank your annual vacation days for your holidays, so that you don’t accrue further lost time.”

I breathed a huge sigh of relief. “Thank you,” I said. “And can I ask about leaving early on the winter Fridays?”

“Oh, yes,” she said. “So you’ll work straight through the day and sign out for lunch at 4 p.m. But please keep that between us, as we strive to be equally fair to all of our employees.”

I resisted the urge to mention that I often tell my kids that fair doesn’t mean equal. Instead, I thanked her again, whispered Mizmor L’sodah to the Ribbono shel Olam, and returned to my desk.

Mulling over this sequence of events, I was struck by several thoughts. One, every frum employee should know their legal rights and not expect their superiors to be aware of those rights — even a supervisor who has been working for the government for 35 years. Two, we have to be so grateful to Hashem for enshrining our religious rights into US law so that we can work without fear of being fired for not working on Shabbos and Yom Tov or for keeping Torah and mitzvos in general. And three, we can’t take these religious protections for granted. At any point — especially in today’s leftist, anti-religious political climate where bris milah and shechitah have already been challenged — we might be called upon again to be moser nefesh for basic observances like Shabbos and Yom Tov, just as our grandparents were.

The generations of American Jews who fought to keep Shabbos at risk to their livelihoods were, by and large, not yeshivah educated and hardly as punctilious as our generation in many areas of observance. Yet it was people like my public-school-educated grandfather who made it unthinkable for me to even consider working on Yom Tov, and it is on their shoulders that we are standing today.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 782)

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