The Ethical Dilemma: Put In an Awkward Spot…and Can’t Let It Go

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You May Be Excused: At a company where I once worked, I was the only Jew in my department and experienced an incident in which I was deliberately placed into an outsider position vis-a-vis my non-Jewish boss. I attended what was supposed to be (as in previous years at this company) a non-sectarian, Christmas-season office luncheon. But just as we were about to start eating, the department supervisor turned to one of my coworkers, a lay preacher, and asked him if he would like to offer a Christmas prayer, to which he eagerly consented. They both knew I was the only Jew there and asked me if I would like to leave the room and return when the grace was finished. By turning the party into a religious occasion, they evidently didn’t care about what an awkward position they were putting me in, especially with everyone watching to see what I would do. Because I was totally blindsided, I was uncertain how to handle the matter, so I complied and left the room. When I came back, I was upset but said nothing. Perhaps I should have complained afterwards to the department manager or to personnel. Instead, I let the matter drop.

It’s been many years since this incident happened. But to this day I recall it with a mixture of embarrassment and anger and wonder what I could have done differently in responding to the situation.

–Still Smarting

Dear Smarting,

This sort of thing is so vexing, with no simple fix. I recently read about a person who was so peeved about a colleague hanging Christmas stockings on everyone’s cubicles that he impulsively blurted out, “Get that out of here—I’m Jewish!” Except he wasn’t Jewish, and the person in the next cubicle (who probably heard him) was. He, like you, felt embarrassed, frustrated, and at a loss for what to do next.

Although the incident at your company may well be a violation of various non-discrimination laws, which could be checked out with AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, that may not have been the route you’d have wanted to take when the incident was fresh, and now it’s years in the past. So it seems as though what you’re looking for at this point is some kind of closure. Other readers, however, may be interested in what to do if they recently or in the future find themselves in a comparable situation.

I doubt anyone gets through life without incidents they wish they could have done over/better, and sometimes there really isn’t a satisfying alternative. I’m wondering if your colleagues were excluding you with the best of intentions, however misdirected (i.e., we all want to pray to Jesus, but our Jewish friend won’t, so let’s graciously invite him to step outside for his own comfort), or if it was a deliberate ploy to isolate you and perhaps not only push you out of the room but also out of the company.

I do think a timely after-the-fact complaint to the department manager or personnel would have been appropriate, to avoid the same situation from recurring annually and to remind others that workplace prayer is inappropriate. Maybe your colleagues had no idea how disturbing this was for you; maybe they did. Either way, they should have been set straight—assuming the manager or personnel wouldn’t simply back up the practice.

If it were possible to do over, it might have been interesting to say, “That’s OK, I’ll stay and observe.” Then maybe you’d make others feel a bit of the discomfort you felt. Or you could have suggested that people who want to pray should have gathered earlier or hang around to do their praying at the end, sparing you from wasting valuable time idling outside the room. You could even have turned the tables and asked everyone else to leave the room so that you could have a moment for a Hanukkah blessing and a round of dreidel.

At this point, it’s high time to let this go. What you did was probably about the best you could have done under the circumstances, and you may have been wise not to make an issue of it. In any case, it’s water under the bridge, and there’s no benefit to continuing to stew about it. Direct your energy towards things in the present and future that you might be able change, not things in the past that are over and done. But thank you for bringing this up so that our readers can figure out what they might want to do if something similar happens to them.