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My roommate’s girlfriend is visiting her orthodox family — is it bad that I’m worried?

From its start in 1906, A Bintel Brief was a pillar of the Forward, helping generations of Jewish immigrants learn how to be American. Now our columnists are helping people navigate the complexities of being Jewish in 2020. Send questions to bintel@forward.com.


Dear Bintel,

My roomate’sfriend’s girlfriend has started spending more and more time in our apartment, and has become part of our ‘pod.’ I also have a girlfriend who sleeps over sometimes, and we’ve pretty much agreed as a house that we should feel okay having significant others over, as long as there is open communication about safety practices and behavior, as well asand that people can visit their parents. There are four of us all together who are roommates, and two of them have family nearby who they visit on occasion.

Here is my question: My roommate’s girlfriend sees her parents and family pretty regularly, which should be no big deal under the guidelines we’ve established. But her family lives in an area of Brooklyn that has been hit pretty hard by the pandemic. I don’t want to say anything because she comes from a very Orthodox Jewish family, and I’m worried it sounds discriminatory. I also don’t want to assume her family is less cautious because of what I’ve read on the news, but I’m not sure if I can just drop this entirely. Can I say something? I’m not Jewish but my roommate is, and the girlfriend has her own apartment where she lives alone. She said though that she’s happy we live closer to her family so she can visit more. What do I do?

dove flies through broken heart

Image by Liana finck

One of the more pointed social cruelties of the pandemic is the way it robs people of the ability to just ‘let it go.’.

Many people would probably tell you this is just wholesale a bad idea, and you should not have multiple partners coming through your home, especially when they are also visiting outside family. But we are a year into this pandemic, and I’ve gotten enough letters to know that this is not how many people are acting, and it rarely works to tell people to act totally different than they are. So let’s accept that this is the scenario, and let’s see if we can get to a better case scenario.

You should definitely raise your concerns, but you don’t need to pin them on the fact that her family is Jewish. Your house is opening up its sources of contact in a significant way, and that brings risks with it that you need to face and discuss, regardless. This should be a discussion about your practices as a whole, not the risk posed by a specific community.

It’s not discriminatory to be more cautious about intermingling with areas that have higher COVID rates than others. But it sounds like your caution flag went up because her family are Orthodox Jews, and that’s not great. When your precautions are rooted in stereotypes, you minimize risks based on feelings, not facts, and that makes us all less safe. Your house is already quite open to risk, and your caution flag should have already been up!

Speak to all your roommates as a house, or start first with the boyfriend, if the two of you are particularly close. Be friendly, but firm, with something like, ‘Hey, now that Sarah is coming by more regularly, can we talk about house policies around visitors and who they visit? I realize once we rope other families in, we’re opening ourselves up to a lot more people.”

You might be tempted to have one conversation about her and her family’s practices (do they always wear masks? Do they have friends or other family indoors? Have they traveled to other homes?), but you should think more broadly.

The truth is, once you open up your home to other points of contact, you lose certainty about who is in your pod or not. Who knows if your roommates’ parents have had guests over, for example, and not told him?

We can’t know all of our points of contact, and that’s why adding people is always a risk. Sometimes people with the best intentions just don’t realize they are acting less cautiously than they say, or think it’s better to soothe their children’s concerns than be upfront. Think about other policies that might help you guys stay safe, ones which don’t just rely on the word of others. Regular testing among the house, for example, would be a place to start.

But do have the conversation. It feels uncomfortable because policing other people’s behavior is uncomfortable, and policing the behavior of their parents feels worse. But by this point in the pandemic, we’ve had to become good friends with uncomfortable conversations. You’re already taking risks, so this is a good opportunity to check in and reorient your rules. Just make sure to center your concerns on practices, not the unique risk posed by certain communities.

Shira Telushkin lives in Brooklyn, where she writes on religion, fashion, and culture for a variety of publications. She is currently finishing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America. Got a question? Send it to bintel@forward.com.

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