I have worked in a wide variety of workplaces over the past 40 years. My time at Lirata stands out in terms of my sense of safety and inclusion as a Jew. However, before I talk about my experiences of inclusion, I want to give some context as to why inclusion as a Jew is such a big deal to me.
Most people have learned something about the Holocaust or Shoah2, the genocide of the Jewish people during the Second World War, but in my experience, people outside of the Jewish community are generally not very aware of current day anti-Jewish oppression3, nor the long history of anti-Jewish oppression, and how this continues to impact Jewish people.
I grew up in Melbourne in the 1960’s – 1980’s, a child of Jewish refugees from Poland and Czechoslovakia. In early primary school, I thought that all Jews alive in the world were survivors of the mass hunting and killing of Jews during World War Two, like my parents and grandparents. Their stories of survival and escape were heroic and painful and were part of what I knew about the world from a young age. At a young age I also started to understand that ‘normal’ people and society in general, was different to us. Though I did not have words or even concepts for my experience, I absorbed somehow the understanding that we were not part of Australian history and society, but more like guests who were permitted to stay. We lived here quite comfortably, but I understood implicitly that I needed to learn how to fit in to the white Anglo-Celtic Christian cultures around me.
I saw that ‘normal’ people celebrated Christmas and Easter and my family was not part of that ‘normal’. I learned that I should give my friends Easter eggs at Easter time, and Christmas presents or at least cards, at Christmas time. This felt normal to me. I had no expectation that my classmates, teachers, or other people in my life (outside of the Jewish community) would know about or be interested in our celebrations or practices. In general, the people around me, both children and adults, were tolerant, though disinterested in my culture, religion, and people. On the rare occasions when small bits of interest or recognition were shown, it felt like a big deal. I did not take it for granted.
Though I did not usually experience open hostility at that young age, it happened on occasion, and was enough for me to understand that violence could happen here, and it could happen to me. I was in grade three or four walking home from school one day, when I realised that a girl in the same grade, who I barely knew, was yelling at me from across the road, “Jew ball, Jew ball” (or something like that). I didn’t know what it meant, but I could tell it was aggressive, and I had no idea how this girl even knew I was Jewish. That was the first time I realised that I could be attacked for being Jewish.
During my teenage years (and even earlier) my school life and my Jewish life were very separate. When I was around 15 years old, I started to become more conscious of my experiences and to understand how they fitted into a spectrum of similar experiences of young Jews in Melbourne through discussions in my Jewish youth organisation. Our youth leaders asked us to reflect on how much we shared, were open about, hid, or even lied about our Jewish identity in our non-Jewish schools or other places we went. All of us understood this question, and why we were having this discussion. It was life-changing to have our collective experiences acknowledged, made conscious, shared and visible in this way. That this discussion stayed in my mind all these years is an indicator of the depth of impact of anti-Jewish oppression on us as children.
Experiences later in life
I’d like to include three more examples from my adult life (though there are many more I could include) to paint a picture of both the subtle, and not so subtle everyday experiences of anti-Jewish oppression here in Melbourne.
One of my early jobs after graduating from university was in an open-plan office in a debt collection department. A few times I heard a popular colleague using the term “Jew” in a pejorative way—to indicate that one of the clients or debtors was stingy. I was surprised but realised that this was a widely used term. I hadn’t shared that I was Jewish, and so people were not being ‘careful’ around me.
A rather different example relates to incidents of violence, or the threat of violence. During my 20’s I was surprised to learn that there were regular threats and violent attacks on Jews in Melbourne—but these were deliberately kept out of the media because it was thought this might encourage more attacks. For many years now, Melbourne’s Jewish day schools have had gates with paid security guards, and synagogues have a roster of trained volunteers doing security duty when there are services. This is considered necessary and normal. Melbourne is still a city where Jews live openly and mostly in safety, more so than in many places in the world. However, violence against Jews has risen in Melbourne over recent years (as it has in many parts of the world). Even in this relatively tolerant city, Jews face real threats to their safety.
My final experience relates to a well-intentioned attempt at inclusion that backfired. Many years ago, in a previous workplace there was a custom of having a Kris Kringle—a tradition where office mates exchange small Christmas presents anonymously. The manager of this workplace tried to include me as a Jew, by renaming the Kris Kringle to something generic that did not include reference to Christmas. Unfortunately this change, although made with the best of intentions, was made without consultation with myself or others, and triggered deep feelings of anger in the workplace. Some people felt that their enjoyment of Christmas had been stolen (or something like that), and I was blamed. One worker refused to speak to me after that, which impacted both on practical work tasks, as well as how I felt at work. Well-intentioned as this attempted inclusion was—it resulted in a greater level of exclusion.
Approaches to inclusion at Lirata
I hope that these examples might provide background, that explains why the seemingly minor actions of inclusion that I experienced at Lirata, have had a significant impact, and also provides some illustration of the ways that subtle acts of exclusion, such as not showing interest, can be significant within a broader context of exclusion and oppression towards a group of people.
When I started working at Lirata, we were a team of four people, and had just moved into our first office. I noted with some surprise, that although the end of the year was a time of significant celebration and reflection for the team, it was not Christmas themed. No Christmas decorations were put up or discussed, and there was no exchange of Christmas cards. Our team social event was called an End of Year Celebration, not a Christmas party. People still talked about their Christmas plans, and some brought Christmas treats to share at work, but this was at a personal level. In no way was I made to feel that Christmas was being ignored because I was Jew; rather it appeared that this was just how things were and as a result I felt an equal participant of the office culture. At the same time, my work colleagues sometimes asked me about my culture and traditions and showed genuine interest.
Though I am used to Christmas and used to assimilating to the dominant Christian based culture without even noticing, when things were done a little bit differently, I felt a sense of relief, of ease from tensions that were so in the background, that I didn’t even realise they were there. I was released from the ongoing tension of being a bit different and having to fit into the surrounding culture. These small acts of inclusion had a surprisingly big impact on my sense of having a home, being part of the team and included, without being singled out for special treatment.
Over the years Lirata has adopted other practices that have helped me and maybe others to feel included. For example, in our adaptations to working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic we started twice weekly half hour check-in sessions, facilitated on a rotating basis, by different team members. These check-ins have been used in a variety of ways, including giving us opportunities to get to know each other more deeply, through asking diverse questions about our lives. We are encouraged to respond in whatever ways we feel comfortable, as well as to share in discussions about work or social justice related issues; sometimes we played light-hearted games together. Some of the activities during check-ins have come from the work of Lirata’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) working group, and provided me and others with opportunities to share about our cultures, heritages, childhood experiences and lives in ways that are gentle and relaxed, without positioning anyone as the ‘other’.
Our approach to these conversations has invited people from all backgrounds, including those who occupy more powerful positions in relation to dimensions of diversity (such as people of Anglo-Australian ethnicity in relation to cultural diversity in Australia), to own and talk about and see those positions as interesting and curiosity-worthy. In other words, framing how we approach these conversations so that they are about acknowledging and inquiring into the diversity of all of us, so we can move beyond the 'normal' / 'other' divide. This is not about ignoring the existence of oppression or inequity, but it is about working together collaboratively to create a space where all are included, rather than a more powerful group 'accommodating' a less powerful group.
Of course, as happens from time to time, I have had a few experiences when a Lirata colleague has said or done something which felt uncomfortable to me as a Jew. However, two things happened which made these experiences very positive. In each case there was already enough connection and a work culture that gave me enough safety to say something; and in each case, I felt the other person was not only willing, but interested to understand and learn. These experiences were both powerful and positive for me. They became opportunities for us to strengthen our relationship, and sometimes impacted on our Lirata work culture to continue to build more safety and inclusion.
Lirata as an organisation still has plenty of work to do on better understanding diversity and oppression, and reviewing and improving our processes and approaches to our work so they are more equitable and inclusive. It's not always easy but some things about the underlying way we approach inclusion will be helpful to us as we do this work.
Doing inclusion well
How can we do inclusion well, in our workplaces and in our lives? The following suggestions are drawn out of my experiences:
- Inclusion works well when it is part of the fabric of the organisation, part of “how things are done”, without setting apart any person or group to be special or different.
- Inclusion works well when there are spaces for everyone to talk about who they are, and where they are from, and to recognise and own their own diversity.
- Inclusion works well when there is a culture of curiosity, interest, humility, and desire to learn from and with each other.
- Inclusion works well when there is time and space for building and valuing relationships.
- Inclusion works well when there is room to make mistakes or have struggles, and where there is enough time and enough safety has been built to talk about and learn from them.
- Inclusion works well when we are prepared to put aside our long-held assumptions about how things “are” or how things “are done”.
1. I am deeply appreciative of so many people over the years, who have helped me make sense of my experiences and believe that there is value in speaking and writing about them. I want to particularly appreciate Mark Planigale, Pam Kennedy and Celia Clapp for their enthusiastic encouragement to write this article, and for their comments on several drafts, which contributed to the development of these ideas.
2. The Sho’ah is a commonly used term to describe the genocide of the Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II. It is a Hebrew word meaning calamity or destruction. Some people (myself included) prefer the term Sho’ah (or Shoah or Shoa), to the term Holocaust, which implies a “burnt offering to God” (See Wikipedia article - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Names_of_the_Holocaust).
3. I prefer the term anti-Jewish oppression to the term antisemitism because it more clearly states that we are talking about the oppression of Jews. The term antisemitism, though widely used and widely misunderstood at present, was coined as part of a 19th century campaign against Jews.
The following articles provide a variety of perspectives on anti-Jewish oppression and how it can be addressed:
- Jews and Allies United to End Anti-Semitism (Re-Evaluation Counseling Community)
- The roots and impact of Antisemitism (Facing History & Ourselves) - a lesson plan, but useful also as a resource
- Be an ally of Jews against antisemitism, and here is how (Fred Maroun, The Times of Israel)
- How COVID has shone a light on the ugly face of Australian antisemitism (Naama Carlin, The Conversation)
This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Rosauer, K. 2022. Doing inclusion well: My experiences as a Jewish woman at Lirata. Melbourne: Lirata Ltd
About the author
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