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Where No Jew has Gone Before

May 9, 2009 | by Ross Hirschmann

Life in corporate America when you're the only guy in your company wearing a kippah.

It usually starts with the polite, whispered questions. A co-worker will sidle up to me, smile, move a little closer (as if he's about to confide a secret in me), look around and then in the lowest of tones, ask the "forbidden" question. "I noticed you wear one of those, you know, thingies on your head."

"A kippah, you mean," I'll reply lightly, hoping to ease his discomfort.

"Riiight," they'll say slowly while nodding their head, "a kee-paw. So, that means you're… you know…Or-tho-dox?"

Good guess, I think to myself. You'd make a killing on Jeopardy. I'll take Obvious Jews for $1,000. "Yes," I reply with a smile. "I'm an Orthodox Jew."

At that point the person usually leans back with a big, self-satisfied smile on his face, as if he just ate the last brownie at a family gathering. "I thought so! So, that means you, uh, can't eat a pig unless a rabbi blesses it, right?"

And it goes on from there. This is my life, ever since I decided to don my kippah in the workplace some five years ago, as the only Orthodox Jew in a large company in mainstream corporate America. In a word, it's challenging.

Once you put on a kippah full time, your life changes forever. You can no longer yell at drivers on the freeways. You can't keep the extra change that a cashier accidentally gives you. And you certainly cannot stare at attractive women you see on the street. Because now you are no longer a "secret Jew" who blends in with the rest of society. You're an identifiable Jew. You're out there! And you now represent Torah and Judaism to the non-Jewish and secular Jewish world. How you behave and speak will determine how they view religious Jews and Torah possibly for the rest of their life. No pressure there.

As a kippah-wearing Jew in the workplace, people don't see just "another guy" when you walk into the room. They see - as in my case - a blonde, six-foot tall giant kippah with legs walking into the room! Now I have to be extra careful about how I behave, speak and interact with fellow employees and customers.

Becoming an out-there religious Jew can work in your favor, too. A friend of mine started wearing his kippah to work the week of a big meeting with a prospective new client. At the meeting, the president of the company, a big Texan, kept walking by the conference room where my friend was having his meeting, and staring at my friend's kippah. "Uh, oh," my friend thought. "He doesn't seem to like Jews. I'm doomed!"

Just then, the big Texan leaned into to conference room and said, "Whatever this boy is selling, buy it! You can always trust a guy who wears one of them beanies!" He got the account.

If there is one way not to make a special place for yourself in your manager's heart, it is by telling him or her that you'll need to be home every Friday by sundown, regardless of the circumstances -- i.e. company meetings, company parties or even more important, company drinking excursions. Of course you have to also clarify that you need to be in your home at sundown, even when sundown comes at 4:30 pm! Oh, and add to that this is sacrosanct, non-negotiable.

This is not an enviable task, but it is certainly an illuminating one. The Sabbath is the centerpiece of religious Jewish life. Having to buck the norm at your company to keep it really clarifies for you what is important for you in life and what is not. What you're willing to risk everything for and what you're not.

The first time I had to discuss "The Sabbath Controversy" with a manager, I was nervous. What if he said "No!"? What would I do? Quit?

When thinking it through, I remembered stories I had heard from Holocaust survivors about how people would sneak into the concentration camps a prayer book or set of tefillin and risked everything -- and I mean everything -- just to say a blessing or pray to God. They would literally have been shot on site without so much as a warning had they been caught. But for them, it was more important to fulfill the commandment to pray or put on tefillin and die trying than it was to cower to some human monster's rules.

Suddenly, the discussion with my manager about keeping the Sabbath was no longer so daunting. If Jews were willing to lose their life in the concentration camps for the sake of a higher cause, I should certainly be willing to lose a job here in my cushy life in 21st century America for the sake of my ideals.

Most of these discussions have gone well, even stimulating a positive discussion on religion with my manager. Other times, I get responses like, "Well, I'll check and see what the company policy is on that." What does THAT mean? Whatever it is, these days I really don't care. I'm willing to risk it all career-wise for God. A stupid move? Well, think about this one: where do my earnings ultimately come from anyhow? The company or God? And whom do I fear more?

Being a religious Jew in corporate America is challenging, but it is also an opportunity. It's an opportunity to demonstrate that religion can make a positive impact in people's lives. It's an opportunity to work on ourselves to make sure our actions do actually convey that message. And it's also an opportunity for us as Jews. As a representative of Judaism to your company, you can bet that you'll get a lot of questions. And you better have the answers or people will think all Jews are ignorant about their own religion. Through our knowledge and our behavior, we can make a difference in the world, and contribute towards fulfilling our mission of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, and being "a light unto the nations."

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