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Women Surviving and Thriving at Work

There is no middle ground, no pareve

Every year dozens of very good Jewish books appear, works that inform, uplift, and inspire, and from which most of us would greatly profit if we had time to read them all. And then there are the one or two works that by virtue of the importance of the subject matter and the excellence of the presentation can rightfully claim a place on every Jewish bookshelf.

Rav Aaron Lopiansky’s Ben Torah for Life, on the transition from kollel to the broader working world, is one such recent sefer. Another is Ari and Miryam Wasserman’s Making It All Work: Women Surviving and Thriving at Work (a companion volume for women to an earlier volume for men, Making It Work: A Practical Guide to Halachah in the Workplace).

That, I will confess, is a not entirely disinterested opinion. I maintain a once-a-week chavrusa with Ari, and he is kind enough to credit Mishpacha with having greatly improved the book. More than a year ago, I placed at the bottom of my column an e-mail address to which women interested in being interviewed about their work experiences could respond. Approximately 30 women did so, and those interviews, in addition to others done previously, constitute one of the chief merits of Making It All Work. Excerpts from those interviews, often more than one, appear on almost every page.

“The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote. And because of those interviews, Making It All Work is not just a compendium of halachah, but an account of the actual experiences of a broad range of working frum women.

Otto von Bismarck famously remarked (or didn’t) that two things should never be viewed in process — the preparation of sausage and the drafting of legislation. In the case of Making It All Work, however, my vantage point of the writing process only makes me more confident of its merits. Many readers, including leading women’s educators such as Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller and Rabbi Zecharya Greenwald, commented extensively on various drafts. They were not asked to review the book merely to provide effusive blurbs for the back cover, but for their critical input based on their knowledge of the subject through their many hundreds of students. Over and over, I witnessed entire sections of the book that had already been edited, ripped up, and rewritten to incorporate the insights of the various readers.

 

IT IS INCREASINGLY RARE, even in the Orthodox world, for women never to work outside of the home, either before marriage, while raising a family, or after the children have left the house — and usually during all three periods of life. And there is no question that the workplace is fraught with challenges for observant women, whether in a secular or heimish environment. (An entire chapter, “The Special Challenges of the Frum Workplace,” details the potentially greater dangers that may lurk in a frum workplace, where there is a higher level of trust and comfort among employees and between employers and employees.)

One of the recurring themes of Making It All Work is the need for preparation prior to entering the workplace. And that preparation does not begin Motzaei Shabbos before one’s first day of work on Monday morning. There are a wealth of halachic issues: drinking and otherwise socializing with non-Jewish or non-frum fellow employees; shaking hands with men; maris ayin involved in entering nonkosher restaurants, even when not eating; and the laws of yichud, which are different for women.

No less complex are the fine lines a woman must navigate — for instance, that between being friendly and a team player, on the one hand, and being a friend to those coming from completely different worlds and worldviews, on the other. Some of the issues are obvious — e.g., striking a balance between the demands of one’s job and one’s family (and how the husband can help make that tension more bearable). How does a woman keep from being defiled by a work environment where the coarsest of speech is the norm and lashon hara is rampant, even if she does not join in?

Others are far more subtle. How does a Bais Yaakov-educated young woman adjust to a workplace that may require the development of traits such as assertiveness and lack of deference to those older than oneself that are at odds with the middos emphasized by her education, as well as with the softer, more nurturing traits needed for motherhood? And what does she do when it turns out that one cannot flip back and forth between one persona and another, as needed? For instance, one issue I would not have thought of is the loneliness that some women in high-powered professions, such as finance or law, feel when they return to their own community, in which there are few women in similar professions. (Other women in that position relish being able to leave all thoughts of work behind.)

 

THE ONE THING READERS of Making It All Work can count on is that they will at least know the challenges and minefields that await them in advance, even if there are no perfect, one-size-fits-all solutions. (The Wassermans emphasize the need for each woman to seek the guidance of a personal rav and, if possible, mentors.) In her introduction, Rebbetzin Heller admits that she first doubted the possibility of a work on a subject where so much depends on nuances and the individuals involved. But she found the book to be filled with sound halachic and hashkafic guidance, despite the elusive nature of the subject.

The chief merit of the book is its balance. In every chapter, there are plenty of examples of the challenges based on real-life experiences. But they are always juxtaposed by an account of how at least one woman successfully dealt with the challenges.

The authors make clear that there may well be instances in which a woman has no choice but to quit her job, and in some cases, based on her unique makeup, even leave an entire field. On the other hand, working is not presented only as a necessary evil. Rebbetzin Feige Twerski (quoted within) speaks of the yearning for expression of a woman’s particular talents. Rebbetzin Heller provides a list of factors that should go into the choice of a career, depending on each woman’s unique makeup, and the amount to be earned is well down on that list.

The workplace presents at once the greatest challenge and one of the greatest opportunities that a Jew can experience. At the very beginning of Making It All Work, the Wassermans cite Yosi Heber, a former senior executive in major food companies: “If the person is a frum Jew… there are only two possibilities: either you will be respected because you are a frum Jew (and you create a kiddush Hashem) or you will be disliked because you are a frum Jew (and that can lead to a chillul Hashem).”

There is no middle ground, no pareve. Armed with Making It All Work, the chances of a frum woman making a kiddush Hashem, and not its opposite, are far greater.

 

Curmudgeon Alert

About six months ago, I realized the world had passed me by. When one of the most button-down Jewish leaders I know began an e-mail with the salutation “Hi,” I suddenly felt myself all alone in employing the traditional “Dear.” Aren’t Torah Jews supposed to be the last bastion of respect for tradition and established custom?

In my ears, which grow ever-more sensitive even as my hearing declines, “Hi” has the same vacuous Valley girl ring as being addressed by my first name by a telemarketer whom I have never met and who is likely four or more decades my junior. (Even nearing 70, I still find it difficult to address those older than me by their first names, even when urged to do so.)

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 771. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com

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