Friday, September 16, 2011

At work, Orthodox women face many challenges 

Surprise! On her 10th anniversary as a labor and delivery nurse at University Hospitals, Cleveland Heights resident Leah Kushner, who is Orthodox, was presented with a cake to celebrate … a cake that wasn’t kosher. “Oh here, let me serve,” Kushner said quickly. Working to pass out slices, she was able to distract attention from the fact she wasn’t eating and thereby avoided offending anyone.

For Orthodox women who work outside the frum (observant) community, adhering to the laws of kashrut and observing Shabbat often cause them the most difficulty. However, other issues arise, such as finding oneself in situations not halachically ordained and being confronted with negative religious stereotypes. These challenges sometimes put Orthodox women in situations that are uncomfortable at best and career-threatening at worst.

Good Shabbos

For Beachwood resident Sarah Abrams (not her real name), a director with an accounting firm with 50 employees in the U.S. and India, “Shabbat is a project-management issue,” she said. “You have to start from the perspective of the other person; this is about work and meeting your deadlines and commitments.”

A conversation with a new boss or client might go something like this, Abrams said: “Given that I need to take time off, how am I going to meet your needs? Who would be an appropriate backup in case of an emergency?” She frequently schedules meetings on Friday morning to avoid coworkers having questions for her late in the day on Friday.
Going into detail about your religious observance may not even be necessary, Abrams said. The key is to show the people you are working with that, despite your personal needs, you have their best interests in mind.

For those who work in jobs not 9-to-5, the challenge can be even harder. “Scheduling for Shabbos can be horrible,” said Kushner, the nurse. “I happened to be very lucky with the manager who was on the unit at the time I was hired.”

Sometimes job offers are rescinded when the nurse mentions her Saturday work conflict. Finding a job in her profession, Kushner said, “is very manager-dependent, and it is frustrating.”

Co-workers can also express hostility, Kushner said, but “people embrace the fact” that she works every Christmas. “I understand that concessions have been made for me.”

A can of tuna

Most days, the issue of keeping kosher at work is a simple one: you pack a cold lunch from home. But if you travel for business or have meetings that involve food, it can get more complicated. Pre-arranged-for kosher food doesn’t always appear, and in some places, it simply may not be available. In addition, being the only person eating a kosher meal at a conference or meeting doesn’t exactly let you blend in, a fact that is exacerbated when you try to cut up a piece of chicken with a flimsy plastic knife.

Many problems can be avoided by calling the food provider in advance, but seasoned Orthodox travelers pack backup food – a sandwich, granola bars, or cream cheese and crackers – as well as small bills and change for vending machines.

Around the water cooler

Like many Jews, Orthodox women are often asked to answer questions about Judaism in the workplace. If difficulties arise with an Orthodox patient, Kushner will hear some variant of “One of your people was here on Friday and …” While UH requires training on how to care for Orthodox Jews, Muslims and Amish, co-workers may forget what they’ve learned. Kushner finds herself explaining the difficulties of being Orthodox in a medical setting or why patients might need to call a rabbi to ask questions about their medical care.

Social situations among co-workers can also be a challenge. Kushner, who has six children with her husband Zev and little time for socializing, runs into awkwardness when she doesn’t join co-workers who are going out after work. Rabbi Moshe Stoll of the Jewish Learning Connection in University Heights fields questions about attending holiday parties in December or colleagues’ weddings in a church. He recommends attending a party for a few minutes if not attending would be frowned upon, just so the invitee’s presence is noted. For weddings, sending a gift and well wishes is appropriate, he said. You can “show you care without transgressing halachah (Jewish law).”


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