| The Conversation Continues |

Strictly Business: the Conversation Continues

Readers debate boundaries, business, and balance

Business as usual? In Issue 897, readers shared their tales of navigating a mixed workplace with the appropriate boundaries and sensitivities. Here, we share a sampling of the responses we received: struggles, questions, and goals


Rabbinical Relationships

I’m writing in response to Rav Avrohom Weinrib, who wrote that he’s seen and heard too many terrible stories about men and women intermingling in frum offices. How does this sensitivity play out as a rabbi of a community with women asking sh’eilos and eitzos or getting hadrachah on personal matters? These topics often include marital harmony or lack thereof, mental health challenges, family situations that warrant guidance or support, or internal questions that need clarity.

When is it the place of the rav to get involved with the women in his community and try to help, and when does he need to create boundaries? Does the rav reach out to offer help or does he just wait until help is requested? Does the rav take initiative to try to be there for a woman or does he try to keep back? If the rav is concerned that his boundary line is breached, does the rav have a responsibility to communicate this to the women or does he just let things be? Does that leave women feeling hurt, alone, or not heard in the process? How would the rav suggest I build a relationship with my community rav in a healthy way?

Name Withheld

Rav Weinrib responds:

Thank you so much for this important and very relevant question.

I believe you are raising two main concerns: First, how can a woman build a connection with her community rav? How can that be accomplished on a practical level? Second, assuming a relationship is formed, what boundaries are necessary to ensure it poses no risk?

I’ll try to address both of these questions.

I believe it’s very common for women to feel they don’t have a place to turn to when they face challenges in the areas you mentioned — as well as others. Even when it comes to halachic questions, women often ask their husband to ask the sh’eilos that come up.

This reality is created by two main factors. First, there are simply few opportunities for interaction. A rabbi is usually found in his shul or beis medrash, learning, davening, or giving shiurim. Women aren’t present for any of this.

Contrast this to men who, for the bulk of their lives — assuming they have gone through the yeshivah system — have been surrounded by rebbeim and rabbanim on a constant basis.

The second and more sensitive issue addresses the tension of the male/female dynamic inherent in any interaction a woman has with her rav. This tension isn’t unhealthy — it should, in fact, be there. The question is how to work with it.

One obvious solution is to circumvent it entirely. Some women develop mentor/mentee relationships with female teachers or rebbetzins. This is a possible work-around, but it isn’t without fault. Women are incredibly busy people, juggling jobs and the all-encompassing occupation of raising a family. Simply finding the time and the energy to devote to a younger charge can be a huge challenge. More fundamentally, oftentimes issues hinge on halachic and/or hashkafic considerations that require a higher level of daas Torah than they can offer.

So how does a woman develop a relationship with a rav? There’s no easy answer. A first step is for a woman to allow the relationship to form alongside her husband. It will take the two of them reaching out to the rav and putting in the time and effort to build a connection. When it comes to halachic questions, there is value in a woman reaching out herself to ask the questions that she has. Besides avoiding “broken telephone,” it allows a connection to be built and to be available for times when “heavier” issues may arise. It also gives the rav a context of who the woman is, which may be helpful to guide her properly when challenges arise.

If a family sh’eilah comes up, rather than the husband asking the question himself, arrange a joint meeting with the rav where both husband and wife can participate.

I personally make an effort to meet each couple in my shul when they first move in and then at least once a year afterward. The main goal of these meetings is to create a level of comfort where both the husband and wife are happy to reach out when needed. I have found this to be invaluable.

A second way is through women attending the rav’s shiurim. While a woman may not be able to attend shiurim frequently, many rabbanim give a weekly shiur for women, and this should be seen as a valuable opportunity for a comfortable rapport to form.

Now, regarding boundaries, this is critical — and that’s an understatement. Failure to implement boundaries can have cataclysmic results. Chazal teach us that “ein apotropus l’rayos — there is no guaranteed safeguard against inappropriate relationships” — and the truth of this teaching is all too clear.

But the failings of a few don’t reflect the masses. The thousands of rabbanim who are careful to create proper and healthy boundaries between themselves and female congregants are the norm, not the exception. They have developed methods to deal with sensitive questions appropriately and interact in ways that are comfortable, but don’t cross the lines dividing cordial association and social friendship.

The rabbanim will observe hilchos yichud well beyond the letter of the law. There are various heterim to rely upon in certain situations, but the importance of this issue requires one to go lifnim mishuras hadin, and many rabbanim do just that.

It’s also important to encourage anonymity when that will suffice. I recently had a woman reach out via an anonymous email address in order to be able to ask a highly sensitive and personal question. This tactic was correct and appropriate and it succeeded in allowing for a healthy discussion of the issue without crossing any red lines.

When asked about boundaries, I always provide the following general advice: Go with your gut. If it doesn’t feel right, then assume that it isn’t. If one senses the slightest breach in tzniyus, this should trigger an immediate red light. This applies to the woman as well as her rav. If a rav is told something he’s not comfortable with or feels is not appropriate to address, he must find a way to share that with the woman and find another avenue for her to get the help she needs.

Wishing you only hatzlachah in your quest to navigate all the complexities and overcome any barriers that may get in the way.

Bosses, It’s on You

I want to thank you for the article about mixed frum offices. I’m a mainstream Bais Yaakov girl who works in a large frum office where everyone calls each other by their first name. It’s a total breach of boundaries and the atmosphere is uncomfortably friendly. Yes, it’s a more relaxed atmosphere, but at what cost? I have a great job with great coworkers and great money, but I feel I lost a sensitivity for a level of tzniyus I used to have and it’s a real shame. If you are a boss of a frum company, take achrayus! Make it uncomfortable and not the norm for men and women to feel like friends in your office. You won’t lose a penny, but will gain so much more in what really matters.

Name Withheld

Not a First-Name Basis

I’m fortunate to work in a frum, mostly female environment. That’s the catch. Mostly. For the most part, I can check off all the halachah boxes. But then there are some.

When a male employee asked me via Slack if he was communicating with Dina, referring to my coworker, I answered clearly, “No, it’s Mrs. Reichman.” I was hoping the message would get across.

Apparently, what he decided was that he’d rather not refer to me by any name and get my attention some other way.

Communicating using no name at all worked for a while, until a few days prior to Shavuos when I heard him say my first name. It took me a minute to realize he was speaking to me as I wasn’t used to a man addressing me by my first name.

And then I read your feature, where Rabbi Avrohom Weinrib wrote: “Frum men and women should not call each other by their first names.” I wrote a respectful email to him stating that I prefer to be addressed as Mrs. Reichman.

Okay, np, he wrote back.

Mission accomplished, b’siyata d’Shmaya.

Thank you, Family First.


Identifying Harassment

Your article about women in the workforce spoke about an episode where a just-married woman felt uncomfortable around a frum man in her office, and she finally left after he said something inappropriate.

This sounds like harassment. It’s important to differentiate between the mores of frum society regarding gender interactions and actual harassment, which is a legal construct. Any woman who experiences harassment is entitled to protection under the law. Some offices have a human relations department or a point person whose job it is to prevent harassment. A woman can even sue if her workplace fails to protect her.

Name Withheld

Torah Standard of Practice

The compilation of readers’ feedback on the complexities facing frum women in the workplace was well-done and timely, and most likely only touched the “tip of the iceberg” on these issues.  As an organization that employs both men and women in our office, as well as serves the broad frum community, Agudath Israel of Illinois is proud to have made attempts to address these concerns.  Under the guidance of our Moetzes and local rabbanim, we compiled and published comprehensive guidelines for tzniyus and proper hanhagos in the workplace, which is required reading for all AIOI employees and is available to all that request.

In our view, just as there are government regulations to implement standards of practice in the workplace, it should be obvious that implementing Torah standards in the workplace must be an even greater priority.  (Readers can email info@agudahil.org to receive a copy of the guidelines.)

We also note that although the issues facing frum women may seem more acute, frum men in the workplace have many similar challenges.  The gedarim that many of the readers wrote about are applicable to the men as well, some even more so.  This has been an ongoing and expanding topic of discussion in recent years at the numerous H3 Business Halacha summits that our office hosts and supports.

Most recently at the National Summit in Chicago last December, Rav Uri Deutsch shlita spoke out very strongly about the concerns related to overnight business networking events that many frum-owned businesses participate in.

Proper conduct in the workplace is the hallmark of men and women that are guided by daas Torah in order to perform their avodas hakodesh to provide for their families. We admire their mesirus nefesh and are honored to be a part of their support system.

Moshe Davis

Executive Vice President

Agudath Israel of Illinois


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 899)

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