Sunday, July 05, 2020

Reviewing: “Making It (All) Work: Women Surviving and Thriving at Work: A Practical Guide to Hashkafah and Halachah in the Workplace,” by Rabbi Ari Wasserman, with Miryam Wasserman. Feldheim, 2019; 485 pages, ISBN: 978-i-68025-408-2.

Observant Jewish women wear multiple hats throughout their lives. The role of the matriarch, however—progenitor of the next generation, not to mention the role as the most trusted adviser and caretaker to the smallest, most vulnerable among us—is among the most primal and important role in humanity.

But a song sung most often at the Friday night Shabbat table, “Eishet Chayil,” composed either by Avraham Avinu as he eulogized his wife Sarah (and then later included in the Book of Proverbs, Sefer Mishlei), or Shlomo HaMelech in honor of his mother Batsheva, already refers to the important work the “woman of the house” does outside the home. Our Imahot were the original CEOs operating and conducting business, with sensible industry: “She considers a field and buys it; from the fruit of her handiwork she plants a vineyard.”

So many Jewish women are mothers, but in equal measure we are also enterprising, intelligent people of the world. We do not squander our gifts, and few of us have been pampered privately in cloistered palaces, dependent on our husbands and fathers for every favor.

Just as in biblical times, even as we are queens of our households, observant Jewish women also have roles outside the home in this day and age, often in secular workplaces. We work in schools, businesses, as therapists, in medical, governmental and law offices, financial institutions and, yes, even at newspapers like the one you are reading right now. Talented women, skilled in many industries, do not measure our professional worth even as we balance the schedule limitations on our lives as Jews. Like our male counterparts, we take opportunities in the ways we can, sometimes without fanfare or publicity, to better the world, to better ourselves and our communities, and strive to fulfill our unique missions in life based on our God-given abilities.

Many of the challenges that arise in a secular workplace affect observant men in much the same ways they affect women. However, Rabbi Ari Wasserman, who lives in Israel after a career on the East and West Coasts, and teaches halachot of the workplace at Yeshiva Ohr Somayach and in other Israeli yeshivot and seminaries, giving single-day workplace halacha seminars, noted something different about women’s experiences after initially authoring a book about general halacha in the workplace, called “Making It Work: Halachah in the Workplace.” His general raison d’être has been to consider all the different halachic manifestations of being a good Jew balanced with the obligations to one’s employers.

After the publication, he noticed that there was a gap, often unintentional in his writing, that did not consider the unique challenges women might face in some workplace situations. His wife Miryam, a financial professional in secular workplaces herself before taking time off to raise their family, also shared with him experiences she had that men would likely never face, and was moved to collaborate with him on this second volume. Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller contributed the introduction.

Rabbi Wasserman interviewed and gathered the thoughts of 50 professional women of varying professions, education levels and from many communities, who contribute their views, perspectives, challenges and anecdotes to this new book. Rabbi Wasserman writes that while his name is on the cover, the book belongs to them. Sharing both specific anecdotes about these women’s experiences and offering more general relevant advice as well, some of these experiences might surprise men who have never worked with frum women, while many women might find the anecdotes achingly familiar. For example, questions from non-Jews or secular Jews about sheitels, about frumkeit, about Shabbat, who are “the best” kind of Jews, or is it a “Jewish thing” to wear dark colors, might sound familiar to Jewish women who tend to be asked personal questions by people who have never met an observant Jew. These questions may, at times, seem intrusive or even insulting to women more so than men, but are more often a symptom of ignorance than malice.

Wasserman notes in his introduction, however, that his first book covered workplace challenges and halachic analyses, not covered in his new volume, that are relevant for women and men in equal measure (Those issues included giving tzedakah from our earnings, paying taxes, personal use of office supplies and reporting wrongdoing in the workplace.) He also notes that this new book is for men in equal measure as for women. Men benefit from knowing how women perceive and experience secular work culture, and how they can address or help the women their lives with halachic challenges in the workplace.

An important portion of the book is instructive for women in terms of guarding oneself against the impact of the secular environment; the language, personal actions or lifestyles may contrast significantly with that which is found in the more cloistered, frum world. “Over time, we can become desensitized to what matters to us most—our beliefs and priorities—and become lax in our observance of halachah,” he writes. The chapter that follows is one of the more serious of the book, dealing with such fraught issues the women interviewed dealt with as they became more entrenched in secular workplaces, struggling with issues like marriage fidelity, lashon hara, increasing laxity with kashrut, tzniut or Shabbat.

The book is generally effective in describing a reasonably large spectrum of challenges women face while attempting to balance an observant Jewish lifestyle—with women working within the schedule limitations of early winter Shabbatot and time off for Yomim Tovim—with other more pedestrian life challenges that most often fall to mothers, like childcare and family scheduling.

All this is placed in strong relief against the overarching need for observant women to set a good example in the workplace, many of them noting in their own words their recognition that they are overtly identified and visible as an observant Jewish woman. Thus, what they wear, what they eat, with whom they associate and when they arrive and leave work—all their behaviors must be weighed against the idea of kiddush Hashem, that every action or reaction in any secular situation is an opportunity or pitfall in our representation of the Jewish people.

Another chapter that is of particular interest is called “Fear of Exposure: Covering One’s Hair in the Workplace.” It is, I imagine, a chapter that complements Rabbi Wasserman’s book chapter in his first book that discusses the halachic considerations of men wearing kippot in the workplace. Miryam Wasserman, when reached by phone in Israel, said that one of the women who contacted her husband with feedback about the first book said she had carefully attempted to apply his halachot considerations on kippot to her workplace attire and choices.

That’s an interesting thought and a good note to make clear: the book is not ideological in terms of secular feminism, but practical in terms of what women are actually doing, and how they can or should make professional choices (For this key point, I thank Rabbi Gil Student, who shared with me some of the insights he gained after reviewing Rabbi Wasserman’s first book for The Jewish Link, back in 2016). Mrs. Wasserman added that her husband’s life passion is based in the practical applications of halacha in the workplace; ensuring that frum professionals are forearmed with as much information as possible before issues come up in the workplace, rather than reacting to situations as they come up. Anyone hoping for a Jewish treatise on how women might re-engineer a gender/pay equity gap or institute more rigorous affirmative action policies will have to look elsewhere. What the book does do is focus on practical advice and experiences from women in many professions, coordinated by a rabbi who is a subject-matter expert in workplace halacha.

This book is required reading for young women and parents with daughters entering or perhaps leaving college, who hope to plan their career choices in concert with their religious life. The book was powerful and thought-provoking in terms of asking young women to think about what career would most effectively balance their professional passions with their personal aspirations, ideas that are not fully realized if they are not yet “in the parsha” of being married or having children. This is a difficult proposition by any measure and involves some type of prediction of what one’s future life might look like. Anecdotally, it often seems to manifest in many women choosing fields of therapy for work—speech, physical or occupational, for example—professional roles that can be charged on an hourly basis that can be flexible for women starting families.

But this might not be enough for women passionate about the sciences or healing who yearn to be doctors, who have not been talked into pursuing a medical-adjacent field to have a less-stressful schedule, or for women who grew up being told they could sell ice to Eskimos and should head straight for law school after college. Life missions are important, and Rabbi Wasserman acknowledges that great poskim have also said that a happy woman fulfilled professionally will be happier and more fulfilled in her home life as well.

This idea that women might not be fully able to balance it all, though, is a concept that could invite further attention. Childcare dilemmas, in essence, require women to make real, life-altering choices, and it’s okay, in some cases, to choose family over professional life, or vice-versa. There is no silver bullet or simple answer for every professional woman’s query. Babysitter drama is real, and sometimes factors entirely outside a woman’s control—children with special needs, family commitments, catastrophic illness of a grandparent or other family member, and barriers to entry in terms of geography or the time it takes to attain higher academic degrees—affect women’s professional lives. Choosing work, too, in some cases, can result in women welcoming people in the home, such as nannies or other home care workers, who do not share the same values or influences that observant Jewish parents would prefer.

Most importantly, probably, is something that Rabbi Wasserman discussed in various parts of the book and also brings up in the introduction: that women can only be successful at work with the partnership of a supportive spouse who can provide necessary backup for the family to function and for everyone to get what they need. I think it goes without saying that the same is true for men.

Wasserman might have mentioned, then, that the single most important professional choice one can make is actually not whether to choose a job with flex-time, or to apply to grad school, or law school or medical school, but with whom one chooses to spend their lives.

Mrs. Wasserman added that all proceeds of her husband’s books go to tzedakah.

By Elizabeth Kratz