No more hiding

Why ’employee resource groups’ are the next big thing in Jewish life

In Short

Jewish employee resource groups, or ERGs, can help Jewish workers feel empowered to bring their whole selves to the workplace.

We are in the midst of a staggering cultural renaissance in American Jewish life, not unlike the late-19th/early-20th century burst of institution-building that yielded organizations ranging from the Federation system to the Der Arbeter Ring.

One need look no further than the countless ways today’s young Jews can spend their evenings doing Jewish things. They can sing their hearts out, or sit in meditative silence among friends. A social type might love a good Moishe House or BASE gathering, while an introvert might feel more comfortable taking a class at The UnYeshiva in the comfort of their living room. Want a beer with your rabbi? You’d be hard-pressed to find a city that doesn’t have some kind of “Torah on Tap” event coming up. If you prefer your learning with a side of fine dining, you could grab a seat in the beit midrash at Lehraus.

The Jewish community’s innovators, funders and creatives have worked diligently to ensure that no evening gets left behind when it comes to Jewish engagement, and our institutions have kept pace with an abundance of weekend offerings, too.

But for all of the time, talent and treasure that have been poured into the hours of 5-to-9, we have completely ignored 9-to-5.

Navigating identity in the workplace
Most young Jews spend more hours at work than anywhere else. Historically, Jews got ahead in the workplace as “heads-down Jews,” working hard and avoiding calling attention to their Judaism. A telling adage from those times was “Be a man in the streets and a Jew at home.” In Deborah Lovich’s recent Forbes article, the managing director and senior partner at Boston Consulting Group explains how she herself “hid” her Jewish identity at work for many years out of discomfort and fear of discrimination.

In today’s cultural context, and despite fears of discrimination (or worse), we know that more young Jews want to bring their whole selves to work rather than bifurcating their identities as their parents and grandparents were once encouraged to do.

Nevertheless, due in large part to the lack of clarity around whether or not Jewish identity falls into the scope of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts, many corporations have missed the mark on creating pathways for Jews to create Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), let alone incorporating training around antisemitism into their suite of workshops. Maybe a company’s Jewish employees wing it by hosting Shabbat dinners or planning one-off Holocaust Remembrance Day events. Still, in far too many workplaces, Jews are on their own.

Garnering support for Jewish inclusion: A case study
In one success story, a grassroots approach adopted by a group of Jewish employees at the professional services firm PwC evolved into a much bigger, formalized effort, integrated with a DEI strategy. This group, which included one of the authors of this piece, overcame multiple obstacles to ultimately receive recognition as a Jewish Inclusion chapter of the Inter-Belief Inclusion Network (J-IBIN) at PwC.

In 2020, five Jewish employees decided they wanted to start a Jewish network at PwC. Unclear on how to receive formal recognition, they were content to maintain their own informal community. As antisemitic incidents increased across the country, however, they felt strongly that they no longer should be – no longer wanted to be – just an insular group, but rather a platform to educate people about Judaism and offer support to those processing the distressing attacks and harassment facing the Jewish community.

In May 2021, a kippah-wearing Jewish man was violently attacked just a few blocks away from the New York City PwC office. In a company-wide email about the attack, PwC omitted the critical fact that it was antisemitic in nature. This incident sparked a surge of support for the idea of a Jewish ERG, with many Jewish PwCers wanting to know how to get involved and have their voices heard.

The original five employees co-authored a letter to the company’s U.S. chairman, Tim Ryan, outlining their frustration. With the backing of over 200 Jewish signatories, they got Ryan’s attention: PwC’s leadership team apologized for the omission of antisemitism from the company’s email and promised to learn more to better address antisemitism properly.

This momentum soon led to the formalization of J-IBIN, complete with a leadership board and regular events. With the help of the DEI team, J-IBIN became a powerful recognized network housed within the company’s broader Inter-belief Network. Today, J-IBIN boasts more than 500 active members and has produced a myriad of creative programs, enriching the 9-to-5 experience for a broad swath of Jewish PwC employees and their allies.

The power of ERG networks
The impact of this ERG has been transformative for employees.

“This is the first professional setting that I’ve worked in where I have been able to express and celebrate my Judaism at work,” says current J-IBIN member Ari Abramson. “This chapter has also been a critical support network for me as we’ve witnessed incidents of antisemitism.”

“In many ways, the workplace could be to the synagogue what the synagogue was to the Temple – a new location in which people found themselves as connected, enlightened and revitalized, just as they had in the previous setting,” says Clal President Rabbi Brad Hischfield.

A call to action

It shouldn’t be as difficult as it was in this case study for Jewish employees to build ERGs, combat workplace antisemitism, and make meaning of their experiences in the place where they spend most of their waking hours.

As we seek to build on the early successes of ERGs we’ve studied around the country, our next steps are:

  • Building a community of practice for folks who want to initiate a Jewish ERG in their workplace,
  • Creating a downloadable resource kit to equip them,
  • Recruiting ambassadors from a variety of professional settings, and
  • Building a network of HR professionals who will help advance our collective efforts.

Rabbi Elan Babchuck serves as the Executive Vice President of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Founding Director of Glean Network. He is also the co-author of the forthcoming book Picking Up the Pieces: Leadership After Empire (Fortress Press).

Rebecca Leeman is a Clal Associate with a background in workforce strategy consulting. She previously worked at Bridgewater Associates and at PwC, where she measured the effectiveness of talent strategies and programs. She is deeply passionate about helping Jewish organizations flourish.