Like many girls her age, Sarah Polter* had a job offer practically the day she landed from seminary. The company’s reputation was solid, it offered decent pay, hands-on training and plenty of opportunity for growth. (“We’ve had employees who assumed managerial roles in less than two years,” the Human Resources Director cheerfully informed her at the interview.) For Sarah, though, of greater importance than any potential and profit offered was the ability to maintain her ideals. During her high school years she had been taught — and during her seminary year it was reinforced — that she had to set priorities for herself before heading out into the real world. As such, Sarah made sure to research the company culture and took in as much as she was able to while waiting to be called in for her interview.
“I was content with what I saw,” Sarah recalls. “The employees were all frum; men and women sat in different areas and it seemed like following tznius guidelines was the norm.”
Confident that she was making the right choice, Sarah accepted the offer extended by the company. (“Yes,” she assured her seminary teacher the night before signing the contract, “the women are ehrlich and tznius; exactly the type I would want to work with.”) The young woman hence waded into the “real” world with every intention of proving to her teachers that even in an office setting, a girl can maintain the level of kedushah expected of a bas Yisrael.
Her first day did not disappoint: Her cubicle was situated between two friendly women she recognized from the community and the work-related communication even with the female co-workers in her department was done chiefly via email.
Three weeks in, though, a thorny issue arose with a client. They insisted a project completed some time before had been far below the standard they had come to expect from the company. The project wasn’t Sarah’s department — she worked in accounts receivable — but now that the client was asking for a discounted rate to placate them, it had become her problem. As soon as she finished assuring the client she would look into matters and that “their satisfaction was the company’s top priority,” Sarah forwarded the email exchange to her supervisor, prefacing the conversation with “Now what??” in underlined, bold size-16 font.
There was a flurry of email exchanges until finally a message came in from Mr. Gershon Blum*, senior vice president of client relations: “Let’s all meet in my office to discuss at 3. See you then.”
Sarah may have been a relative newcomer to the company, but she had been there long enough to learn that some clients simply looked for excuses to stall for time in making payments. In her opinion, the client in question fit that category and Sarah strode confidently down the hallway, ready to explain her view of the issue. Eager to impress a company executive, she rehearsed her little speech before knocking. She took a deep breath, composed herself, and then gave her most professional, poised knock. “Door’s open, come in,” she heard.
Mr. Blum looked every part the executive he was. Graying hair, crisp business suit complemented by a maroon tie, he was seated behind a large wooden desk and barely looked up as Sarah walked in. Sarah quickly scanned the room and immediately realized that none of her co-workers had shown up yet. What was she to do? They were certainly going to come any minute. Did that allow her to close the door as she awaited them or was it still better to leave it open? What about derech eretz for a gentleman decades her senior? Did that preclude her from leaving the door to his office wide open? There were large windows alongside the elegant conference table; could that be factored in? She remembered her 12th-grade halachah teacher saying something about yotzei v’nichnas — was that a chumrah? A halachah? Could she rely on it?
A hundred thoughts raced through her head for what seemed like an eternity, until they were finally interrupted by the laughter of her female colleagues coming down the hallway. “Sarah, you are so punctual! It’s only two minutes after three!” Kayla*, her co-worker said as she walked in. Well, at least Sarah was safe now and the meeting could commence. Yet the small incident left Sarah with a nagging thought the rest of the day: How could she be assured she would not unwittingly violate the laws of yichud if she did not know them well? Sure, she knew the basics — but when translated into real life, not every situation was always basic. What was she to do? Carry around a Kitzur Shulchan Aruch? Have a Rav’s number on speed-dial? The more she thought about it, the more concerned she became; was she doomed to making split-second decisions for the rest of her career? Had she made a grave error when she accepted a corporate job?
Demystifying Office-Related Halachah, One Email at a Time
For thousands of young adults in the workforce, finding themselves in the above scenario is all too common. They learned the rules and have the foundations. But somehow, the practical application of it seems more difficult than it sounded when they learned it. Enter a young computer-proficient talmid chacham in Boro Park, Rabbi Greenstein*, who was familiar with the challenges of even frum offices. “My wife and family members have worked in offices and would discuss the issues that had arisen,” he states. Then, one day, he noticed an ad for a daily email with the relevant halachos. Intrigued, he signed up. “They were nice; they contained the halachos, were sprinkled liberally with stories and were a great tool for working men and women to be reminded of the halachah guidelines we have to maintain.”
Still, there was room for improvement. “The emails were very basic — just text; no accompanying graphics,” a subscriber remembers. Moreover, as the program became popular, the personal email address being used was unable to send emails out to so many recipients and professional software needed to be purchased. Seeing the need and appreciating the potential, Rabbi Greenstein contacted the person who had started the program and offered his assistance. “We enlisted a few donors to help subsidize the cost of ads. A wealthy businessman who took a particular liking to the project sponsored a pamphlet to be distributed in shuls, spreading awareness. Once we had the funding in place, we were able to embellish the emails to include more halachos and present them attractively,” he says.
The Doeihu email list started to grow. A popular speaker mentioned it to her listeners, pushing subscriptions into the thousands. People started replying to the emails with she’eilos, necessitating a Rav to be brought on board. In response to that need, Harav Mechel Steinmetz, shlita, the Skvere Dayan of Boro Park and one of Brooklyn’s leading halachic authorities, graciously agreed to serve as the program’s Rav.
Though running the Doeihu program took a lot of work, the feedback Rabbi Greenstein received was inspiring.
“Hi. I must say that the daily emails really help me a lot. They give me so much awareness. I actually work in an office of men and I wouldn’t manage without it! Thank you so much!”
“I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate the daily emails. After a few weeks of being in my office, I felt that I needed some hadrachah to keep going. I spoke to a teacher, and shortly after that I met a girl a year older than I am who mentioned these emails. They are so convenient, practical and so helpful. Now, with my busy schedule, which probably all girls my age face, instead of having to make time to read a sefer or book, we can get emails to read at our convenience. This option helps us take steps one at a time, and it makes all the difference. Tizku l’mitzvos!! Hashem should bentch all those who made this happen with brachah and hatzlachah and the siyatta diShmaya to keep doing things to benefit the klal.”
Another employee wrote that the emails gave her the strength she needed to withstand a challenging moment that had arisen.
“Although I am not one who sends thank you emails often (this is the first time), I feel the need to thank those behind this amazing project who are taking the time on a daily basis to send out these emails.
“I work in a place with a lot of men. Although it can be challenging, I’ve been receiving your emails for over a year already and am aware of the halachos and know to be careful. The incident that occurred today showed me to what extent your daily emails have had an impact on me.
“One of the men needed help with a technical issue that was beyond his grasp. My (female) coworker and I were able to resolve it — but not before encountering much difficulty and exerting a lot of concentration. When we finally finished, he was genuinely appreciative and wanted to show us that. Innocently, he offered to buy us lunch. Completely stumped, I didn’t know how to respond, but the look on my face told him I didn’t want him to do that. He continued on, ‘It’s Adar. You’re supposed to be happy,’ and he walked out thinking, that remark would make me change my mind. In a total state of shock, I turned around to my workmate hoping she’d be able to help me with an answer for him. However, to my surprise, the answer I got was, “That’s great! Free lunch!” But I knew there was no way I was eating that lunch.
“Fifteen minutes later, he was at our desk, holding an overflowing sushi platter containing all my favorites. With instructions to share it with the other girls in the office, he left. I turned to my coworker and showed her your emails and explained that a woman is not allowed to accept a gift from a man. Now she was also aware that we could not enjoy it. However, it was an expensive platter and we didn’t want to throw it out. Giving it over to the men’s department to enjoy was also not an option. We decided that since the office was an open place with many people coming and going, we would leave the sushi on the desk for everyone to help themselves. That platter sat on our desk the entire day tempting us, but we had the strength and didn’t take even one piece… Let me tell you what I would have done had I not been receiving your emails for over a year: I would have given him a smile with a big thank you and then eaten every last piece of sushi. Thank you for giving us all the strength to do what’s right!”
Back in the Office
Things were picking up. From Baltimore to Bnei Brak, from Passaic to Petach Tikvah, recipients of the daily Doeihu emails were learning and elevating their workdays by virtue of knowing and adhering to the applicable halachos.
And then came COVID-19.
As the global community grappled with the dreaded disease, the world’s activities — from the mundane to the magnificent — came to a screeching halt. The lack of in-person interaction and remote working meant there was little to no use for a daily email of halachos predicated on people being together. But for Rabbi Greenstein, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “The time off from the pressure of writing a daily email allowed me the luxury of revamping the program,” he explains, which included rewriting many of the halachos with his clientele in mind. “The insightful questions I had received over the first few months have granted me an understanding of what people needed to hear.”
Now, with much of our region finally powering down Zoom and Skype and slowly but safely returning to their offices, the new and improved Doeihu program is ready to launch. A website has been set up offering, among other materials, signs that companies can download to display conspicuously throughout their offices reminding workers of their noble calling. The emails have been revamped too with fresh graphics, well-researched halachos and great stories. Rabbi Greenstein points out another feature the Doeihu website contains: “People can sign up directly from the site, allowing anyone to sign up with just one click,” he says.
And as we move into a (hopefully) post-corona world, there has never been a better time for people to strengthen and reaffirm their commitment to the Torah’s boundaries. n
*Names have been changed.
To sign-up for the Doeihu program emails, send a request to firstname.lastname@example.org.