By: Adam Kramer  | 

Challenges of Being Orthodox in the Unorthodox Workplace

Students gathered in Weissberg Commons in Belfer Hall in late-April for an event on being orthodox in the unorthodox workplace environment. The event opened with introductory words from Senior Vice President of YU Rabbi Josh Joseph, which was followed by small-group breakout sessions with fifteen professionals and culminated in a networking session for the students and professionals in attendance.

After humorously remarking that he could be more aptly described as being unorthodox in the orthodox environment of YU, Rabbi Joseph shared a few anecdotes of the religious challenges that come with pursuing a career in corporate America. Recalling his days working at a hedge fund on Wall Street, he mentioned that as part of the culture of the hedge fund, employees routinely used language wasn’t exactly PG rated. He talked about how when he feared he was being drawn into that culture, he set aside a jar on his desk, which he’d put money into every time he swore.

Later on, Rabbi Joseph had messed up a high-stakes trade and feared being let go from the company as a result of his mistake. Rabbi Joseph’s boss entered his office and instead of yelling at him or telling him he was being dismissed from the company, he inquired about the jar. After Rabbi Joseph told him that the jar was for putting money after swearing, Rabbi Joseph’s boss placed a large sum of money into the jar and and then exited the office without firing him. Rabbi Joseph related that he felt as though his boss’ respect for the jar--which helped keep him grounded in his Orthodox lifestyle while at work--helped save him from being fired.

Rabbi Joseph also related a story about his Rebbi and mentor, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein zt’l, who had passed away a few days prior. In a question and answer session in Rav Lichtenstein’s yeshiva, Yeshivat Har Etzion, someone had asked Rav Aharon how he should maintain learning Torah for six hours each day while in medical school. Rabbi Joseph recalled that Rav Aharon responded sharply to this question, saying that if learning for six hours a day would make the student a worse doctor, then how could he do such a thing? Rabbi Joseph commented that in that one story someone could see Rav Aharon’s humanism and the incredible way he advised balancing an orthodox lifestyle within the demands of a medical school lifestyle.

At the conclusion of the opening remarks, the student attendees of the event broke up into small groups of around 8-10 students, with two of the professionals in attendance assigned to each group. I asked Rebecca Weiler from YU’s Career Center about the small-group format of the event and she highlighted its advantages, namely that it “allows for more direct follow-up questions, and provides more insight and advice to students who may have their own specific questions.” Ms. Weiler hoped that the networking session following the event would provide people from all groups the opportunity to have more personal attention.

This writer was assigned to a group with Mr. Dov Adler, a partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Alternative Investment Practice, and Ms. Ayelet Hirschkorn, the deputy attorney general for the state of New Jersey. In this group, the two professionals spoke about the need to be consistent in the workplace in all that one does. Neither professional, at least in my group, advocated specific policies like which restaurants its okay to go to or if they’d recommend wearing a yarmulke, but both stressed the need to be consistent; if someone wears a yarmulke to work, they should wear it to work every day and not take it off even in a non-kosher restaurant.

Junior Yoel Polack was in a group with Mr. Ari J. Hirt, the Managing Director of Debt & Equity Financing at Mission Capital Advisors, and Ms. Ilana B. Friedman, a Pediatric Ophthalmologist at Montefiore Medical Center. Polack remarked that these two professionals stressed how it won’t always be easy being an Orthodox Jew, especially not when one is new to a job or in a junior position. That being said, as someone gains seniority at the company, it becomes easier to choose kosher restaurants as the venue for meals. One of the best tips Polack heard in his group was that you should always offer to pick the location for meals, in order to direct the group to kosher establishments.

When asked about the small-group setting, Polack mentioned that he found the small group to be much more interactive, and that it was “a great opportunity to ask questions that were on their mind.” Polack admitted that he “would’ve like to move around to different groups” but agrees that the organizer’s of the event did the best that they could.

While the event seemed to run flawlessly and culminated in a productive networking session, Ms. Weiler remarked that an event such as this one has many logistics that need to be coordinated, such as date and time, location, food, marketing, and most importantly securing professionals who are willing to participate. According to Ms. Weiler, “The Career Center is very lucky to have many enthusiastic alumni who happily agree to collaborate with our office on events and help current students.” Ms. Weiler also signaled out Mr. Joel Strauss who “went above and beyond to help our office and ensure that the event was successful.”

Ms. Weiler commented that the Career Center has received “fantastic feedback that this has been the best year yet, that this event is extremely helpful and that students hope we continue to offer something like this in the future.”