Thanks and Giving: The Jewish Workplace

Alissa Thomas
November 2, 2012
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I grew up in the Jewish workplace.

My mother, who is a rabbi and a cantor, spent a great deal of time raising my brother and me in the warm walls of our shuls and taught us on a daily basis how to act and view ourselves as Jewish leaders. The synagogue was our second home, and the discussion of Jewish life, politics, and practice was our vernacular. A single working mom, my mother always managed to be present for my brother and me as well as for her congregants. In short, she was and is a wonder woman.

I remember one Thanksgiving in particular. We had planned our meal and were heading home from a matinee movie to relax and nosh for the rest of the day. Then my mom got a call. My brother and I knew what waited for us on the other line. Something shul-related, of course. My mom hung up the phone and turned to us.

‘You know the nice lady who always wants to talk to you both at temple? The one who is your friend’s grandma?’

We both nodded.

‘She is in the hospital. She is sick.’

Our stomachs sank, not only because we felt badly for our friend and her grandma, but also because this would mean mom wouldn’t be able to do Thanksgiving dinner just yet. We were both fully aware of the primacy that bikkur cholim takes in a Jew’s life, but as young kids we couldn’t help but feel disappointed.

‘What do you think we should do?’ my mom asked, sensing our dismay, ‘It’s your choice. We can either eat our Thanksgiving meal now or we can go to the hospital, pay her a visit, and really live what it means to be thankful and giving on Thanksgiving.’

My mom is a genius.

Of course she was going to visit the congregant no matter what, but how she handled that moment not only gave my brother and I the ability to step outside of ourselves and do a mitzvah, but also the powerful lesson that a Jew has a responsibility to give to others. To this day, I remember sitting in the waiting area that Thanksgiving as my mother visited her congregant. In that moment I knew not just logically but also experientially the true value of being thankful and giving. Later that day we happily enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner as a family.

This is one of the myriad of examples I can give where my mother translated her commitment in the Jewish workplace into a formative life lesson for her children. Because of my mother, in many ways I am actually the product of living and growing in the Jewish workplace. In and out of the synagogue I learned what it means to have an obligation to the Jewish people and to serve God in every moment of the day. From where I stand, the Jewish workplace is a place for morality, spirituality, mitzvot, and family.

With this in mind, should the Jewish workplace be different from any other workplace? Was it right for my mother to include us in her work that Thanksgiving?

I would argue it should be. The Jewish workplace is not just a place that gives off time for Jewish holidays; it is a workplace that upholds Jewish values such as kavod habriyot, tzedek, and shalom bayit. It is a microcosm of what we could imagine to be a world united by Torah values. The Jewish workplace is both practical and spiritual.

In the Shulchan Aruch in Choshen Mishpat, we learn countless rules for how to conduct ourselves in the workplace. One of the guidelines in Choshen Mishpat 228:6 teaches us not to hurt, mislead, or cheat others in business. What better place to live our Torah-mandated care and fairness toward others than the Jewish workplace! God is invested in all of our business dealings, and in the Jewish workplace we have an active role as the Jewish community in defining how exactly we want that to look.

I believe the Jewish workplace should ideally be a model of Jewish middot and mitzvot—it should be filled with torah values, just as much as we would expect in a shul, a Jewish Day School, or a beit midrash. In the same way that we approach our Shabbat table as a mini shulchan, the table, from the Beit HaMikdash, we should construct our Jewish workplaces as mini models for service to God and to the Jewish people. The Jewish workplace uniquely is a space in which we have the opportunity to not just dedicate ourselves to the task at hand; our work answers to a higher authority.

As a proud child of the Jewish workplace, I am thankful for the gifts, values, and lessons that my mother and her communities imbued within me. I learned first hand what it means to be responsible to others and to be a Jew, a light unto the nations. In response, I have chosen to devote my life to giving to the Jewish people and to serving God through the model of the Jewish workplace.

May we all enjoy the true connection of thanks and giving this year and in years to come!

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Alissa Thomas is currently a student at Yeshivat Maharat. She graduated from Brandeis University with a bachelor’s degree in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and a bachelor’s degree in Classical Studies Archaeology and Ancient History. She has studied at Machon Pardes, Neve Yerushalayim, and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She has completed one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at Bellevue Hospital and is also the present Rosh Beit Midrash for Uri L’Tzedek. She is originally from Los Angeles, California and currently lives in New York City.

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