How Do I Set Boundaries With My Jewish Colleagues?

Got a question? Fill out this form to submit your anonymous question to be answered in a future column.

Dear Miriam,

I work in the Jewish education sector at an organization with wonderful Jewish and non-Jewish colleagues. My colleagues are generally great, but they don’t have the same boundaries as I do and tend to view us all as family. One of my colleagues is Chabad and seems to function as our unofficial workplace shaliach (guide or representative). It is nice that he makes a lulav and etrog available for everyone who needs it at Sukkot and that he organizes a workplace megillah reading on Purim, and I’ve benefited from these things, but I generally can take care of my own religious life without his help. 

Whenever he offers me Chabad items, I politely refuse. When I returned to work after Passover, there was a box of shmurah matzoh on my desk. I’ve spoken to my supervisor about these unwanted offers and items. She seemed not to understand why it bothers me (and likes receiving things like matzoh from him), but she offered to speak to the colleague. I said that I could do it, but now I’m not sure what to say. It feels mean to tell someone their generous gesture isn’t appreciated, but I also don’t want these things. What should I do?


Let My Boundaries Stay


Dear Boundaries,

You find yourself in a difficult situation, and I absolutely understand why this feels like an intrusive, boundary-crossing experience. But just like the adage about how you can’t change other people’s actions, only your reactions (or one of any number of variations on that theme), I wonder if you can reframe this as an opportunity to clarify your own boundaries while being mildly amused at other people’s lack thereof. 

When your Chabad colleague offers you things you don’t want, you should continue to say, “no thank you.” If he puts things on your desk you don’t want, you can return them to him, and say, “I’m giving this back to you because I don’t need it.” You can be a broken record. You can be polite but unwavering. He may see his role in the office as making these religious items available, and you can see your role as refusing them. 

If you were not Jewish, and these offers kept happening, the dynamic would be different, and it would be a much more serious matter for HR. If you were a Jew without your own religious practice and habits (perhaps, I would speculate, like your supervisor), you may appreciate these items as a curiosity or, genuinely as an item that you want and will use but wouldn’t have thought to get on your own. You seem to fall in another category, where Chabad is not your style, and you have your own distinct religious practice. At the same time, since you’ve benefited from some of what he has made available, he may be confused about what you do and don’t appreciate and figures why not err on the side of more generosity. The only way to clear that up would be through extensive conversation, but he’s not seeking that out, and I don’t think you will ultimately benefit from increasing the intensity of your interactions. 

I am fully aware of all the ways in which my response may be unsatisfactory. If a coworker was bothering you by repeatedly asking you out for a date, and my response was, “Just keep politely declining,” that would be both terrible advice and asking you to accept harassment. However, if a coworker repeatedly brought donuts to work, and you were mad about being offered donuts, I think it would be acceptable advice to say, “Just don’t eat the donuts.” This is somewhere between these two cases, but as intrusive as it feels, it’s really more like the donuts. But, if you feel compelled to say something more specific than “no thank you,” I’ll suggest this: “I know you’re just trying to be generous, but I’d appreciate it if you didn’t offer me any free items from Chabad.” 

I have worked in Jewish communal institutions for almost two decades. I have seen so many variations of boundaries set and boundaries broken. I have benefited from the “we’re all family” vibe, and I have struggled and refuted it as well. The reality is, Jewish workplaces aren’t exactly like other workplaces, and there are ways in which that can be great and ways in which you may feel smothered or bothered or simply like your personal religion has no place at work. Jewish workplaces should always be safe and respectful places to work, but even in the best cases, the boundaries just function a little differently. Hold your ground about not taking things you don’t want, but also hold your ground about treating your coworkers well and taking responsibility for the things you can control. 

Be well,