Celebrating the Differences: A Jewish Girl Working in a Secular World
Written by We Are Social U.S. Project Manager, Sam Levitz
I grew up in a Brooklyn bubble. While there were always diverse groups of students in my public school classes, there was always a solid group of Jews wherever I went. Whether it was Hebrew school, Jewish youth groups, or college campus Hillel, I was lucky to grow up in the city with the highest population of Jews in the world.
I didn’t need to think about taking off school for the High Holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and Spring break was always scheduled on Passover. Sure we were still a minority in the world, but there was a lot less explaining and assimilating I had to do.
That is until my first internship right after college.
I started my new job the second week of September, which fell right before Rosh Hashanah and I didn’t know what to do. As an intern, I didn’t get any PTO days I could use, and I had no clue how to ask for days off, especially starting a brand new job.
I felt stuck. I felt like I didn’t have any options and so that Rosh Hashanah instead of sitting in temple praying like I did every year, I went to work.
The whole day I felt sick to my stomach. It wasn’t that I thought I was going to get in trouble with G-d or anything. There are plenty of Jews who travel and do work on the High Holidays. But this wasn’t how I observed and it bothered me. I should’ve been in temple singing Ein Keloheinu and listening to the shofar, not doing admin work. I looked forward to those services and being in the community on these extremely holy days. Luckily, Yom Kippur, a fast day, was a Saturday that year and I was grateful to not be put in the same situation.
After my internship I was hired full time and when Passover came around those same anxieties started creeping back. I brought in a bagged lunch as the dietary restrictions on this eight day holiday are more strict and suddenly realized how much of the day revolved around food.
From my coworkers asking me to go out to lunch, to office happy hours, and book launches, I suddenly noticed how many events were planned during this one week where I couldn’t so much as have a soda unless the bottle itself was labeled Kosher for Passover.
I felt extremely left out and worst of all I was just starting out in my professional journey. These were the events and social gatherings I needed to be going to to make connections and build my career.
“Wow, that sucks you have to do that, I’m sorry.” I was told more than once. It sounded like they were sorry for me for being Jewish–something that I’ve never felt sorry about.
I can’t lie and pretend it wasn’t frustrating. Using 3 out of my 10 vacation days a year to sit in temple, having colleagues ask me how my time off was and not understanding that repenting and fasting for 25 hours wasn’t exactly the relaxing day off they assumed I must’ve had.
It’s frustrating to choose between your religion and your career.
Fast forward to June 2021, after 9 months of unemployment I landed a job at We Are Social–my first agency job. When they tell you one of your job benefits is unlimited PTO, it really does sound too good to be true. But having that ability to structure my work, and deserved vacation time around those Jewish holidays is so important.
But it’s not just important for me as Jew. According to Harvard Business Review, for decades, many companies’ holiday calendars have revolved around the major Christian holidays. As a global agency with people working from all different countries, time zones, cultures, and religions, it’s important to understand that what works for those celebrating Christian holidays, just doesn’t cut it for everyone else anymore.
I don’t need a day off for Christmas. I need companies to add multiple floating holidays to their benefits packages that count for holidays other than American Federal holidays. For example, there are up to 13 Jewish holidays per year that can require missing work, which is only a fraction of the estimated 176 religious holidays that are celebrated by many different people. It’s important for employees to have the flexibility to take off for personal holidays, and not be penalized by eating into hard earned vacation time.
I applaud a company for caring about their employees and understanding that life isn’t cookie cutter for everyone. For allowing the space for flexible schedules and not just stopping at that. In fact, this was the first time in my working experience that I didn’t feel guilty about taking off for the High Holidays.
May is Jewish-American Heritage month and I’m incredibly proud to be Jewish. My coworkers know it’s a huge part of my identity and plays a role in everything I do.
Providing these opportunities is essential to creating a culture of belonging in the workplace.
Companies can create this supportive culture by providing their staff with information on Jewish holidays and customs, without leaving the responsibility of their Jewish employees to educate. Asking questions is always appreciated, particularly when it comes to dietary needs and restrictions. Working on DE&I programming, and giving the space for employees to discuss how it feels to be Jewish in the workplace are all helpful tools for providing more context and support.
I’m extremely appreciative to work for a company that doesn’t look over my differences, but celebrates them, and I’m hoping to see more companies take this approach in the future.
As part of our DE&I Programming at We Are Social U.S., Sam and designer Vivienne Apsey presented the below, including fun Jewish facts, snacks & games: