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Was I wrong to offer my new employee time off for the Jewish holiday?

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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 2021. Send questions to bintel@forward.com.


Dear Bintel,

I know there is nothing to do now, but I still feel really uneasy about an interaction I had at work a few weeks ago. A new employee had just been hired to my team, remotely. The entire interview process had been through video calls, so less rapport than you might develop in person but we had some sense of one another (I jumped into the final stage interviews, since I would be her manager). She was hired and officially started the week before Shavuot.

I’m not Jewish, but I went to college in a very Jewish area and have many colleagues and friends who are quite observant, so I feel I have a good sense of cultural markers. My new employee has a pretty traditional Jewish name (think Rivkah Cohen, though it’s not that), and she seems to cover her hair with scarves and only wear tops with more conservative sleeves and necklines. I assumed she was an observant Jew, just based on that.

As her manager, I didn’t want her to worry about taking time off so soon into starting, so I welcomed her to the team and offered that she take the Monday off, for Shavuot. Then things got weird: She asked me what I meant. I said the Jewish holiday. She sort of laughed for a moment and then said no thank you, but also as if she didn’t know what I was talking about. I realized I had badly misread the situation and backtracked, but it was really uncomfortable. Did I screw up?
Signed,
Be Gentile With Me

Dear Gentile,

Your instinct was a good one, and kind. If she was a traditionally observant Jew, then she would have had to request time off anyway, and your offer could have given her assurance that you wouldn’t resent the request. If she was part of an observant community but with enough personal flexibility in her own practice that she wouldn’t want to lose a job over taking time off work, or even to make a bad impression, then your offer would have given her ease of mind. You had enough clues that it makes sense why you thought she might need the holiday off.

In that sense, I don’t think you screwed up, exactly, though it sounds like your assumptions might have been incomplete, and you relied too much on the presumption of a warm relationship right off the bat.

A few things could have been going on:

Maybe she has an Israeli parent but is otherwise secular (and covers her hair for reasons unrelated to Jewish observance). Lots of Israelis have Hebrew names that in the United States might be read as religious. Maybe you mispronounced Shavuot in a way that made her not sure what you meant, and she was just being politely evasive in the moment. Maybe she is transitioning out of an observant lifestyle, and was surprised to have to confront this personal choice with her manager at work.

Maybe she isn’t even Jewish. I don’t know what the actual name is, but I knew a non-Jewish Rivkah in graduate school (the name is close to the Slavic version of Rebecca). Your new employee could cover her hair for many reasons, enjoy wearing more modest tops, and be named after her mother’s Jewish childhood friend or something, but not be Jewish herself. Lots of plausible stories don’t involve her being an observant Jewish person.

Your intentions were good, but there is value in not presuming to know the needs of a new employee with that much specificity. Your same goal can be accomplished with a broader, vaguer statement. You could have said something like, “Welcome to the team! Here is lots of orientation information. We’re also very accommodating of religious practice, so if you need time off for a holiday or have food requirements or anything else big or small, just let me know. I know it can sometimes be hard to ask for accommodations right off the bat, but we’re eager to meet those needs.”

This would have put the ball back in her court. There is no reason to think she’s so fragile that she still would have hesitated to ask for the time if she wanted it.

When we have close friends from other communities, our “insider baseball” knowledge about that community is often expressed in a warm, friendly, appreciative atmosphere, where we are socially rewarded for our unusually high degree of insider knowledge.

I can easily imagine how when a group of Jewish friends from college hang out with their non-Jewish friend who can nonetheless drop Hebrew words mid-sentence, it’s fun. I know that when two social butterflies from different religious communities meet for the first time and realize they can share very particular experiences with one another, they often find that fun. Lots of people embedded in thick social communities enjoy encountering others who have picked up on their way of life, and bonding over that.

Not everyone does, however, and not always at work. I think you were caught off guard because you assumed your insider knowledge would be appreciated, like it has been in the past, and you are surprised at how badly you seem to have misread the situation. Maybe even a little embarrassed.

Whatever it is, you were not wrong to think that it was likely she observed the Jewish holiday, but assuming you could then proceed with total certainty was a misstep. Even Jews who come off as clearly Orthodox can appreciate being given the chance to set their own needs and practices.

In the future, be clear with all employees how accommodating you are of religious practice, and then let the employees share their needs with you. This also has the advantage of ensuring you are not screening out Ashley in the sleeveless top, who might actually need the time off as an observant Jew.

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.

Was I wrong to offer my new employee time off for the Jewish holiday?

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