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Safe Anchor or Risky Waters

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Many frum companies have designed the physical layout of their workspace to define the necessary interpersonal boundaries. In some offices, the cubicles for men and women are at far ends of the room, and in meetings men and women sit at opposite sides of conference tables. Paradoxically, an absence of physical barriers can also enhance boundaries


anding a job in a religious Jewish setting comes with some obvious perks: no awkward explanations about shaking hands, no pressure about missing work on Yamim Tovim, not feeling like a perpetual outsider for skipping happy hour.

Yet while many secular workplace travails fall away in a frum environment, other, more subtle challenges come to the fore. How can we identify the dilemmas underlying the benefits of a religious workplace, and how can we resolve those conundrums in the most elevated way?

Orthodox Jews of every stripe deal with similar pressures (think shidduchim, for one), and in a broad sense, share a lifestyle and value system. Put us in a room together and before too long we feel heimish. It can be wonderfully comfortable, but at the same time it carries an inherent risk — appropriate boundaries can become blurred. Maintaining these boundaries, say those in the trenches, is the single biggest challenge of the frum workplace.

Take Simi. She stepped off the plane from seminary and into a large frum accounting firm, thrilled to have found a job in a “kosher setting.” But it didn’t take long for her to realize that even here, it was all too easy to cross the line into impropriety. The lax atmosphere in her office engenders chatting, joking, and bantering that’s a clear breach of tzniyus, especially after 6 p.m., when the workday is officially over, the room begins to empty, and there’s a distinct shift in the atmosphere.

“My boss, who’s 36 and has six kids, has a very friendly nature,” Simi, 26 and single, says. “He’ll send me texts that usually start off work-related, but sometimes veer off in other directions. He’s involved with shidduchim, and will often text me for information about girls, in a schmoozy kind of way. He’s asked me to send him pictures when I’m on vacation. All this makes me very uncomfortable, and I try to limit it, but at the end of the day he’s my boss, and I need to tread carefully.”

Carefully, but also a bit more proactively, says Rabbi Yosef Viener, rav of Kehillas Sha’ar HaShamayim in Monsey, New York, who fields workplace sh’eilos from around the world on a constant basis. “Many of the shalom bayis issues I’ve encountered over the years started in the office, with some situations ending in disaster. Things can spiral out of control very quickly, so situations must be dealt with decisively as soon as they arise. People are afraid to speak up for fear of losing friends, but work isn’t a popularity contest, and that’s certainly not a reason to remain in a risky situation. Fear of being fired shouldn’t be a deterrent, either — it would be very unusual for someone to lose a job over dealing with untoward behavior.”

How, exactly, should such scenarios be handled? Of course each set of circumstances is different, but ideally the person with the concern should address it directly to the other party. Margalit, 46, program director at an Orthodox organization, recently found herself receiving compliments from a yeshivish-looking male coworker on her clothing, and even on the color of her lipstick.

“I’d come home confused and upset,” she relates. “I’ve been taught that it’s never appropriate to comment on the physical appearance of the opposite gender. I got really creeped out when he offered to flick a bug off my sweater with his pen. I told him, ‘No, you should not,’ in a very firm, curt way. He got the message and backed off. Had it continued, I planned to say to him, ‘These kinds of comments make me uncomfortable, so please stop.’ If I had brought the issue to someone higher up in the company, he would’ve been mortified.”

Sometimes it’s one’s actual physical space that needs protecting. “One of the bosses in my company gets way too close,” Simi says. “If he needs to look at my computer, he’ll drape his arm on the back of my chair and lean in, making me feel like I can’t move. He’s an ehrlich guy and I’m sure it’s unintentional, but it makes me so uncomfortable.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 712)


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