When the personal is public

Post by Melissa (Photo from Rachael Ashe @ Canvas to the Imagination)

The choice to cover one’s head is highly personal, but for those of us who work for the Jewish community – its also very public.

There happens to be an executive in my community who is an observant woman who is preparing to move to a new community – and is distraught over what to do about head covering.  She has been on a journey, partially inspired by my diligence in covering (quite humbling for me!), and has made ongoing commitments to herself to strengthen her observance of this mitzvah.  However as she prepares for the next step of her professional journey she feels halted in her personal journey.  She will be in a position where she cannot run the risk of alienating people from the get-go because of her choice to cover, or even within the covering community by how she covers.

Meanwhile, I am so committed to my head covering that it has become a symbol of my level of observance and who I am.  It has helped me to strengthen my observance of other mitzvot, knowing that when people see me with my head covered, I am an example of so much more than I want to be.  As a front face of a communal organization, my head covering has become a defining feature not only of me, but of a new approach to diversity in the community.  It has made many frum (observant) people feel more welcomed within our walls and events to not feel like a token, now that there is a visibly observant staff member.

Though my decision to cover my head full time was very personal, it has become very public. I am part of a small group of women in my local metro-area who cover full-time, and even less so who do it in a sheitel-free way (which makes it more obvious to outsiders).  As someone who still belongs to a Conservative synogague and works for a pluralistic community organization, it is even more noticably public.

How do we recitfy making a personal commitment, to how our community sees us?  How do we find a balance between our level of inner and outter observance?  What do we do to keep ourselves approachable and respected by a wide array of people as we rise in the ranks of non-profit professionals, without sacrificing who we are?

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17 thoughts on “When the personal is public

    • I feel like we shouldn’t have to always sacrifice though. Why can’t an outwardly religious woman also be an executive for a related N-P?
      (I’m not expecting you to have the answer, its just part of the musing…)

      • I understand what you are saying but from personal experiences I have found the world to expect peopl to fit into their mould, they want to produce cookie cutter employees who will be willing to change their life around their employer’s demands.Anyone who does not dress they way an employer wants or cannot work the timetable an employer wants or has family that might “get in the way of work” is not wanted.Employers seem to think they own their employees.

        Dress code is a biggie; our attire reveals a lot about us, and religious attire is not seen as professional, unless one of course is Muslim with a hijab but even then not with a niqab. It is said that in the first 30 seconds before someone even says a word, either a negative or positie decision is decided judging on dress alone.Your friend may find despite her hard work and commitment an invisible glass ceiling may block her career progression.

        The world is unfair isn’t it?

      • I too have found that looking outside the part is a huge roadblock. I wore a tichel on every job interview and though I spoke of it (per a post here awhile back) I am certain it was a factor in being a final candidate but not getting the position in more than one instance. For me it is important to be up front about it, because any organization which won’t want me for my head covering, will also probably not be thrilled with the number of days off I need for Jewish holidays.
        While it can be a roadblock, it doesn’t have to be. You just have to find the right place. My friend is actively shattering the glass ceiling, in fact, and has resolved herself that her head will be covered while doing so. (I wish I could give the specifics, but I don’t want to oust her identity and anything more than a very general comment would certainly do so.)

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  2. I get that too.People are interested until they meet me.But hey, who wants to be employed by such fickle people anyway?

    Congrats to your friend.

  3. Hi Melissa,

    I love your blog and sometimes feel like I’m reading some sort of parallel to my own life (I swear I had the exact same experience with my Hazzan husband in the grocery store that you had!).

    Anyway, do you know if the Conservative Movement/Rabbinical Assembly has any teshuvot on head covering? I know there are some very interesting ones on taharat hamishpahah and other issues.

    Also, if you don’t mind my asking, do you go on the bima or accept and aliyah or count yourself in a minyan? If you would like, you could also email me your answers if you aren’t comfortable answering here 🙂

    I love your blog! (yay to Jessica too!)

    • Thanks for your feedback!
      I don’t know if there are teshuvot on head covering, but I will look and email what I find to you. I actually don’t follow the RA’s teshuvot on many things, opting for a more stringent halachic approach, including taharat hamishpaca (though I do love and agree with some of their statements, esp regarding premaital sex – but that is a story for another day.)
      As for egalitarianism, there is a draft blog post in my queue on the topic, so watch for it in the next few days. Its way too much for just a simple comment. 🙂

  4. Kol HaKavod to you M!

    A tremendous kiddush-Hashem.

    You write how observing the mitzva of covering your hair has strengthened observance of other mitzvot.To add a male voice, even though it’s not a mitzva per se for a guy to stop trimming his beard and payos as it is for a married woman to cover her hair, I will say that I feel similarly once I let them grow. Knowing I now look the part of the “chassidic Jew”, and will be perceived and judged accordingly, it forces me to step it up and try to act the part even when I’m perhaps feeling anything but.

    As Mesilas Yesharim says, the external can arouse the internal.

    Maybe it’s a tangent but I think it also works how the heart can be drawn after actions, as in with moods or emotions. Act a certain way and eventually the feeling will accompany too, genuinely so.

    Whether it’s external garb, or acting a certain way even when we’re not feeling it inside, eventually the “mask” becomes the real us.

  5. When your friend interviewed for her job, did she cover her hair? If she did, and they hired her anyway, it seems that her employers do not feel that covering her hair will be an issue (and thus, she should talk it over with them to see if they think she will risk alienating people by covering her hair). And if it’s a problem, people get past it. I used to be bothered a little bit by turbans (I first saw them while walking in Chassidic Williamsburg last year), but now I’m totally unfazed by them :).

    I responded to a post Jessica wrote regarding this topic (about whether she was going to cover her hair while working at Hillel), and while it’s true that some people judge others based on what they’re wearing in a negative way, I have seen girls who were not very involved in Jewish life actually get more involved because of a tznius woman rather than by those women who did not cover their hair. And I know for a fact that the clothes and hair coverings helped a little ;).

    • I doubt she had her covered, but I know that she has shared her struggle with people there. Her only superiors are the board though, so that always makes things interesting.
      I too know that being in the presence of tzniut can be a motivating factor for increased involvement 🙂

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