Op-Ed: Torah In The Workplace


Torah in the Workplace

Daniel Gelman

Gossip, scandal, jealousy, slander, theft, profanity, anti-Semitism, and sausage pizza parties, are just a partial list of the spiritual challenges we are exposed to in any workplace outside the Jewish community.

Jews make up less than two percent of the nation’s population. Observant Jews are less than one percent. That means that virtually every one of your fellow Americans is unaware of – or disengaged from – Torah.

If you’re a rabbi or you work in Jewish education or philanthropy, you have the opportunity to elevate your daily affairs in a manner consistent with your values. You will face a minimum of obstacles, because most of the people you deal with share your purpose.

But some of us work in predominantly non-Jewish atmospheres. Our income depends on our ability to navigate through murky cross-cultural waters, while maintaining a refined spirit. How do we do that, without alienating our coworkers or misrepresenting what we stand for?

Reacting a certain way to a delicate situation, or stating a value or position with just the right words, can significantly impact the ethos of a workplace. In addition to avoiding unholy scenarios or sharing our perspective about them, we’re often tasked with explaining Judaism .

Navigating Foreignness

One coworker of mine was a proud immigrant from India and a practicing Hindu. He delighted in sharing wisdom from his culture and cooking traditional food for his coworkers. He cherished his role as ambassador of his culture. In fact, his self-esteem depended upon his appeal as a paragon of Eastern virtue.

Eventually I shared more about my identity with him when a situation demanded it. This changed the dynamic of our relationship. He didn’t know how to process the idea that I had my own culture, with a language, a wisdom tradition, and dietary guidelines. Initially, he wanted to remain the “exotic” one. However, my intense loyalty to him as a friend and professional mentor stimulated an emotional attachment to me.

Although he never fully understood my way of life, he did take special note that the most loyal and spiritually-committed friend he made at work was a Jew. He even shared this information with his Indian friends and family.

It is not our job to seek approval of our lifestyle. But it is part of our vocation to be a light and to represent God and Torah with refinement and dignity.

One coworker offered some pizza. I thanked him graciously and declined, making reference to kosher food. He laughed and said, “I’ll bless it for you if you want.” A few weeks prior to that, a group of coworkers asked more about my background. When I mentioned kosher food, they said they knew that meant that a rabbi must bless it.

It was clear that they didn’t want to hear a lecture on what kosher actually meant. I wanted to say, “So if a rabbi blesses a ham and cheese sandwich, that makes it kosher?” But sarcasm or condescension would not have been appropriate. At least the concept had registered in their thoughts. Perhaps they will research it.

Embracing Refined Speech and Moral Virtue

Many workplaces are saturated with profanity and vulgar conversations. People eventually notice that I speak differently, and that I keep my distance without acting superior. Sometimes I’ll ask a trusted coworker if they have ever thought about how commonplace such language has become. One young lady even stopped to think about her own speech. Suddenly she was appalled.

I do encounter the occasional committed Christian in the workplace. We often bond due to our aversion to vulgarity and our concern with professional ethics. Like the Hindu gentleman, at first they seem annoyed that I have a spiritual tradition that promotes goodness and contradicts their own theology.

But inevitably they tell me that they had never met a Jew who could quote scripture or followed commandments. They too shared their encounter with a different type of Jew with their friends, family, and congregation.

While it’s great to work amongst our own, there is also great value in representing Jewish life where it otherwise would not exist. Many people know secular Jews from their neighborhood or rabbis as they are depicted in popular culture. But realizing that the average person in the cubicle next to them takes Judaism seriously is a true revelation.

Daniel Gelman is a journeyman worker in multiple industries, and a veteran Reporter of News, Feature, and Opinion based in L.A.