When Jewish Workplaces Stray From Jewish Values
OpinionTaking Root

When Jewish Workplaces Stray From Jewish Values

Kindness and respect not only are the right ways to operate, but also are the most successful.

What was true when a Jewish store operated under this pomegranate in Granada, Spain, should still apply: Jewish values should be part of Jewish workplaces.
What was true when a Jewish store operated under this pomegranate in Granada, Spain, should still apply: Jewish values should be part of Jewish workplaces.

A young Jewish professional recently confessed to me that her husband, not nearly as engaged in Jewish life as she is, does not understand why she has chosen to work in the Jewish community. For her it comes down to living her values.

There are lots of reasons to work in Jewish life. But I have to agree with her that high among them is the opportunity to work for organizations that share Jewish values and a commitment to a higher communal good.

In an ideal world, those values also translate into healthy and happy work environments where derech eretz (everyday kindness) and kavod (respect) are the norm for the people who do the work. Not only are these the ideals of Jewish behavior, but these values have been shown to help elevate creativity and productivity in the workplace.

I recently spent a few days with a team of dedicated Jewish professionals and philanthropists in New York, talking about just how important it is to make Jewish workspaces safe and respectful.

We were gathered together to discuss sexual harassment in the Jewish workplace. In preparation for the workshop, I steeled myself for several days of sordid tales and legal ins and outs.

Instead, I found myself deep in thought about what makes for a good or even great workplace and just how well poised Jewish organizations are to make that happen.

In the past year there has been much discussion of sexual harassment in the workplace. Sensational cases make national headlines, and the #MeToo movement has highlighted the breadth of experience women have had, from the unpleasant to the violent.

Fran Sepler has been working to ensure safety in the workplace for decades. She has trained employers, employees, and boards of large corporations, universities and major Jewish organizations. Many times she has had the difficult job of having to report behavior that steps beyond the line of unwise to illegal.

But illegality is never the starting place for Sepler. Over and over, she stressed to us that if Jewish organizations, their boards, their supervisors and their employees focus on creating a respectful workplace, everything else will follow.

In other words, living our Jewish values in the Jewish workplace is good at every level.

The Good People Fund and the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York brought Sepler to train 12 Jewish professionals so that we in turn could go out and work with boards, supervisors and employees in schools, synagogues, camps and other nonprofits.

Over the course of our training, we went over and over the challenges that come up in workplaces. We learned skills for having difficult conversations. We honed our abilities at coaching people to do their best.

All participants in the training were veteran Jewish professionals. Even as we focused on the best ways to build safe and respectful work environments, stories emerged of less-than-perfect experiences.

There was the board member who berated someone for being too fat, the supervisor who used a slur, the co-workers who drank too much and were overly familiar.

Years of experience have taught Sepler that creating spaces for conversation about what a positive environment can look like empowers people to live up to the better versions of themselves. Working with businesses and organizations, she has seen proof that having an overall commitment to respect is essential for limiting hurt and damage if things do get out of hand.

Now that I am certified in Sepler’s approach, I want to facilitate discussions that remind us about the power of kindness and consideration in Jewish spaces in Georgia.

Without a doubt, there will be those who do not see a need to have conversations about a topic that should be self-evident and others who feel that we should focus exclusively on the hard legal lines.

But I am hopeful that in the coming months, many organizations in our community will take on what I see as a very Jewish approach and begin to tackle these difficult issues by talking about how to live our Jewish values.

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