Matzah in the Workplace: Being Jewish in the Workplace During the Holidays

At this time of year, the Jewish Professional checks his/her calendar and asks him/herself: “Another 4 days off of work for Passover? Plus up to 4 other days of bringing in matzah sandwiches and gefilte fish. How am I going to do it this year?”
The Seasoned Professional

The seasoned professional has a more experienced viewpoint. For him or her, requesting time off for Jewish Holidays represents an annoyance and not a major source of angst. I am not implying in any form that these Jews do not love their religion and the traditions and holidays. However, the average employer offers an employee 10 days of vacation and a few sick/personal days. Perhaps a floating holiday, if lucky. In a “bad year” these precious days get zapped up by September/October holidays. No matter how meaningful these days in shul and at meals are, it leaves no time for DisneyWorld with the kids, Hawaii with the wife or Key West with the friends. (Different life stages mean different vacation plans). Most employers also offer the bittersweet options of unpaid time off and/or flextime. However, as unemployment rises, it becomes more and more difficult for even the seasoned professional to request these days off.

The Law and Life

Yes, we have the law on our side. Employers legally must accommodate religious observance unless it represents an undue burden for the employer. For example, if a sports stadium needs an extra food vendor clerk specifically for weekends, this clerk would have to work on Saturdays and Sundays. However, laws are black and white and real life comes in shades of grey. Can you really rule out the possibility that personality conflicts did not arise from leaving unfinished work behind to leave early on Fridays? Or not coming in on Saturdays if that has become the norm among the other workers? A lifetime of these doubts forces us to constantly wonder when Jewish paranoia is justified.

The Entry-Level Professional

Multiply these issues tenfold and you can begin to understand the dilemmas of the entry level person. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlaws employment discrimination and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to enforce these laws. However, in reality (not legally), when interviewing two equally qualified candidates, religious observance unfortunately can influence the final decision. Even once the entry level person has eventually passed these hurdles, and has been forthcoming with his/her employer, asking for time off can seem like fighting the same battles again. These supposed days off become sources of significant stress for these employees who question what happens at work in their absence and what negative effects this will have on their future at this organization.

The Reality of Acceptance

In my experience, once a company has accepted an individuals observances, these employees work equally as hard, even minus the missed time for “chagim”, and perform just as well as others. This leads to other light-hearted situations in which “frumies” gather together to discuss the local kosher restaurants, the possibilities of ordering in on Passover, who has the best stash of Passover candy etc. In moderation, these discussions do not take significant time away from work, they actually help out new and experienced employees by arriving at answers quicker than pondering them on their own.

Additionally, Passover happens to intrigue many people: secular Jews and non-Jews included. Somehow, the Jewish traditions associated with this holiday managed to withstand the critiques and skepticism of the anti-religious. The Seder composers succeeded in creating everlasting and interesting traditions that keep everyone asking the right questions. Perhaps you don’t feel comfortable representing a multi-millennia-old, highly complex religion to non-observers? Do it anyway. You cannot expect others to embrace diversity in the workforce if you shut them out of our traditions. If you want your company (and others) to keep hiring kippah wearers, you need to represent the best of us. Give your co-workers the correct impression that observant individuals work hard and dedicate themselves to their companies even while keeping their priorities straight.

In other words: Don’t hide that box of matzah, offer some to your non-Jewish friends at work when you stay late one night. I find my coworkers favorite time of the year is the days leading up to Passover, when I bring in my non-pesach food for consumption- particularly my Purim nosh.

Michele H. Datz has over 5 years of experience as a human resources professional.

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