Being Jewish in the workplace

Being Jewish in the workplace

Panel brings new insights to human resource officers

Max Kleinman, Sharyn Mandell, Alyssa Rubin, and Jonathan Segal all spoke on the panel.
Max Kleinman, Sharyn Mandell, Alyssa Rubin, and Jonathan Segal all spoke on the panel.

When Jonathan Segal told an acquaintance that he was preparing to talk about antisemitism, the response was: “pro or con?”

“They meant it as a joke,” Mr. Segal said. But his reply was serious. “Do you think you might have said that if we were talking about other protected groups?”

Mr. Segal, a labor attorney and partner at Duane Morris LLP, told the story at an online panel, “Jews and Judaism: Traditions, Culture, Faith, and Fear and The Root of Antisemitism,” presented last month by the Tri-State Diversity Council, which brings together human resource professionals specializing in diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Alyssa Rubin, who put together the panel, directs regional natural gas operations for NRG Energy. The panel’s goal was to offer “an improved insight into how to recognize and address antisemitism in the workplace, and how to learn you how you and your organizations can provide allyship to your Jewish colleagues,” she said.

Ms. Rubin noted that “most non-Jews equate antisemitism with the Holocaust,” and that “Jews today in the U.S. are living freely, and we are thankfully not facing the genocide versus what was occurring in World War Two.” Nonetheless, she said, she has experienced antisemitism in her life. “Everything from being called a racial epithet in grade school by girls who were supposed to be my closest friends to be excluded from important meetings that a previous employer held on Yom Kippur.

“We have to actively address antisemitism in its most basic and even smallest forms to ensure that it does not progress.”

Max Kleinman of Fairfield, the former CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and a columnist for this newspaper, offered a concise history of antisemitism, beginning with “the teaching of contempt by Christian leaders” a millennium ago that led to the Jews being forbidden to own land and forced to live in cities and confined to ghettos. Because Christians were prohibited from charging interest, Jews became money lenders.

“One of the occupations they could practice was money lending as charging interest by Christians were forbidden. “So they became the target of peasants and others who owed money and who couldn’t pay, and kings in England and France exiled the Jews to relieve themselves of debts.”

All of this culminated in the Holocaust, but it did not end there.

“The enduring hatred of the Jews continues this day, with Jews suffering by a factor of at least three for the most physical and verbal attacks conducted against any religious group,” Mr. Kleinman said.

Mr. Segal noted that “Jews are not only followers of a faith, but we’re a people. So if you’re only looking at negative comments about the Jewish faith, you may ignore or you may miss some of the most problematic aspects of antisemitic behavior.”

Sharyn Mandell of West Orange, associate council at Jefferies, a New York City investment bank, said that because Jews are such a small percentage of the world population, “there are many people who have never met Jews before. Not so much around here” — the tristate area — “but in a lot of other places.”

Since the seminar was geared for human relations professionals, Ms. Mandell talked about tangible ways in which ignorance of Jewish practice causes problems in the workplace.

“In our tradition, we go to synagogue, we’re not allowed to work, we’re not allowed to engage in commerce. So to be asked to come in to work really creates this tension about choosing between your job and your religion. And every year it comes up. I’ve had to explain to leaders who have scheduled really important meetings” on the holidays, she said. “We’re not asking for cancellation of all work and meetings, but for recognition that you should not be planning a major event on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. And when I have raised this, almost every time I have gotten responses such as ‘That’s the only time that everyone is available.’

“And just in saying that implies that the Jews are not part of everyone.”

“I’ve had people come to me and say, ‘I don’t know how to tell my manager that I really can’t come to work. And I’m really afraid it’s going to affect my job.’ In my own family we have these conversations.”

She has seen a similar lack of awareness when it comes to food. “When we used to have big meetings in person with meals, people were sensitive to food allergies and dietary restrictions,” she said. “But I’ve been in smaller team meetings where I know a Jewish colleague is not eating because he or she is kosher. And there hasn’t been any questions about ‘Do you have any dietary restriction?’”

Similarly, she noted that in a workplace where “senior leaders put out notes urging people to be sensitive to what your colleagues are going through” when hatred and bigotry rises in the news, when Jews are subject to violence because they are visibly Jewish, “it’s silent in the workplace. It’s just this lack of awareness that there’s another group of people who also are victims of hatred.”

Mr. Segal said that he has seen an increase in people approaching him with claims of antisemitism, generally involving negative comments.

He said that there are “things we can do as bystanders, as Jews or non-Jews, when we see or hear something in the moment. I’m a big believer that humor can be a very effective way to address the issue without downplaying it.

“Someone said to me, ‘Well, I didn’t know you were Jewish. You don’t look Jewish.’ And I said, ‘I took the menorah off my head, but maybe I’ll put it back on next time we talk.’ I said, ‘I don’t know what you meant. And I don’t assume bad intent. But it could be heard differently.’  I can’t say assume good faith, but don’t assume bad faith, and give people an opportunity to come around. The messages get there.”

Ms. Mandell said her work in the field of diversity, equity, and inclusion has led her to be less inhibited about being Jewish in the workplace.

“People who are Black would tell me about how they didn’t bring their authentic self to work and how exhausting it was, and I started to think about the ways I don’t bring my Jewish identity to work,” she said. “Earlier in my career I was not telling anybody I was Jewish and was coming to work on the Jewish holidays, because I was afraid. But also not wearing my Jewish star pendant. And not using Jewish expressions in the workplace, like mazel tov. That’s my instinct to say to somebody and for a long time I wouldn’t say it in the workplace.

“But as I started to think about my responsibility, and as I got more confident and senior in my career, I did speak up. I talked about the holidays, and I started to say, ‘As my tribe says, mazel tov!’ Because I realized I too had to bring my whole self to work.”

Ms. Rubin said she takes every opportunity to educate colleagues. “People have said, in very well-meaning terms, ‘Happy Yom Kippur.’ So I’ve taken the time to explain to them at it’s definitely not an enjoyable holiday, by any stretch.”

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