A Research Paper By Stephen Baker, Empowerment and Transformation Coach, UNITED STATES
The observant Jewish population is a meaningful subset of several geographies. Even more, within the term of Observant, there are a vast number of nuances and affiliations not readily apparent to the non-Observant observer. However, while easily identifiable as a broad group, they are still people and individuals with all of the needs of individuals. An alternative term for Observant Jewish is Orthodox. However, Observant is more accurate as one either follows the standards of practice or does not.
This paper is not designed to discuss Observant Judaism per se but make the coach aware of some potential nuances that can impact the coaching process and relationship through the lens of cross-cultural coaching.
I was hesitant to write this paper at one point due to fear that the presentation will only create negative views of other humans due to their faith-based lifestyle and priority systems significantly different from modern popular culture. It is my sincere hope that instead, this paper adds a new sensitivity to coaches who can bring much to new potential clients who need and want coaching as much as any other person.
Coaching the Observant Jewish Client: Cross-Cultural Coaching
Coaching an observant Jewish client is another form of cross-cultural coaching for many coaches. The potential coach should be aware and sensitive to issues that will provide interesting considerations to the coaching process.
Agnes Mura, Co-editor of The International Journal of Coaching in Organizations has stated that
If coaching is largely about shifting and expanding people’s perspectives in a way that they can translate into daily actions, then working with individual belief systems and assumptions is vital.
Cultural differences can cause immense frustrations and represent a real mystery to many of us. When understood and used constructively, however, these differences provide a remarkable source of richness for interactions learning, and growth. These very frustrations may however expand the coach’s horizons. Whether newly coaching or having spent long amounts of time with this type of client, there is much to absorb, remember and take out of the coach’s bias.
Integrating the cultural dimension into coaching is not only necessary to increase coaching’s validity and applicability in today’s intercultural environment. It is also an opportunity to learn from alternative cultural perspectives about crucial areas such as communication, thinking, time, power, identity, purpose, organization, or territory.
The Encyclopedia of the Bible provides a useful definition and context around Jewish law (internally known as halacha):
Throughout the long history of Judaism, one of the main expectations of the Jew has been the fulfillment of the Torah’s prescriptions, but these have been differently understood according to the specific interpretations of each subgroup of Jews and their particular place in history. Rabbinic texts have termed the system of Jewish law and its practice Halakhah.For the rabbis, halakhah denotes the life of the Torah, encompassing all areas of human life, including civil, criminal, political, religious, moral, ritual, and familial issues.
For the observant Jewish client, Jewish Law or “Halacha” addresses every facet of life and existence. Judaism is a religion of law, a law that governs every facet of the human condition. Although Halacha is of divine origin, its interpretation is entirely within the human intellect.
This all-encompassing and humanly managed life overlay will create new challenges or the coach’s perspective. Options or solutions that may seem “obvious” to the coach would never cross the mind of the client. Or cross the mind and be immediately dismissed. The coach is not guiding the client or steering the conversation and has removed themselves from the process. Still, as humans, frustrations with another’s unwillingness to explore solutions can challenge the coach’s frustration level. Below are a few areas that can have a lasting and meaningful influence on an observant client’s coaching journey.
Jewish Dietary Law (Kashrut)
The observant client is obligated to follow strict dietary guidelines broadly labeled as Kashrut. Without going into too many details, many of the dietary laws cannot be fully understood through logic alone. Many come from divine fiat. A variety of explanations have been advanced over the centuries. Regardless of the explanations, Kashrut is part of maintaining an enhanced level or standard of holiness.Kashrut provides guidelines as to what is acceptable to be consumed by the Jewish client. This involves the spectrum from raw items such as the avoidance of pork, shellfish, or milk and meat together through which flavored coffee may be consumed.
Frequently, an observant client will only purchase “processed” items that contain a symbol called a hechsher. The hechsher signifies that a particular organization or individual has evaluated the product from sourcing through final production.
Diet may be a significant portion of or the entirety of a particular client’s reason for seeking coaching. The client may be trying to lose weight or “get healthy”. When inquiring about a client’s opportunities for healthy alternatives or products the coach should be prepared to hear:
- [Brand] made a new fat-free dressing but it is not kosher.
- The supervision of that company/producer is questionable.
- I had meat, I had to wait several hours before I could try that dairy item.
- I don’t know what is in those supplements and they don’t have a hechsher.
- I don’t eat at restaurants so if I don’t prepare my meal in the morning, I have a hard time finding noontime food.
The coach must be prepared to have otherwise available opportunities dismissed. Observant clients may just not have the same avenues open as other clients. Locale will play a significant role.
The coach may be looking for rather creative paths. Questions such as “given the importance of diet in Jewish life, what healthy options are prevalent in your community?” and “Thanks for explaining what a hechsher is, how many do you hold as okay?” This last question may spur a client to look outside of their known product list. There are many hechsherim that are acceptable to even very strict clients. One challenge is getting the client to truly understand what IS available.
Shabbat is at the very center of Jewish consciousness. It is repeated more times than any other commandment in the Torah, and it is the only ritual observance that is part of the Ten Commandments. Observant Jews will tell you that Shabbat is one of the greatest sources of inspiration. And, paradoxically, Shabbat is often the greatest hurdle to those testing the waters of Judaism.
The Jewish client is called upon to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.Sabbath represents a sanctity in time. The continual recurrence of the Sabbath is a perpetual testimony to G-d.Jewish law surrounding Sabbath is immense in depth and breadth. The corpus of materials can be overwhelming to the newcomer. What is pertinent to this essay is that Shabbat commands the client to not engage in work or creative acts and to rest from the mundane world.
To the outsider, this may appear as a weekly day of jail time. However, the separation is valued deeply by many observant clients. This too may posit some challenges. In keeping holy, it is not only a few forbidden acts but those that diminish the holiness of the day. For example, it would be unseemly to go jogging on the Sabbath and build up a sweat prior to going back to services in the evening. Similarly, while one may leave a television on, it diminishes the day into a mundane hang-out rather than one of spiritual elevation.
The coach may come to hear the following from the Observant client.
- I would love to try that [service, shop, etc.] but they are only open on Saturday and not on Sunday.
- That lecture series is only showing on Saturday and I have other commitments.
- It’s not appropriate for me to do X on the Sabbath.
- I barely make it home in time from work on Fridays. I cannot add X to my day OR I cannot do that after work on Friday.
Knowing ahead of time to not challenge the Sabbath arms the coach with a different approach. Rather than “How could you get this done on Friday night?” the coach may ask “What would give you more time to finish this before the Sabbath?” With respect to the “weekend”, the coach can avoid “what do you do on your weekends?” as the coach knows that Saturday until sundown is a special and distinct time. The coach may inquire about “what meaningful activities are available on Sunday to move towards your goal. In the realm of relationship coaching the coach has room for “how are you using the special time of the Sabbath with your family.” The nuanced understanding expressed by the coach may create an added level of comfort with a client who feels better understood.
Community and Rabbinic Leadership
The community plays a significant role in the observant Jewish client’s life. Jewish families cannot live in isolation. To live a full Jewish life requires engagement with other Jews and a Jewish community. The community provides services and experiences that the home cannot, and in addition, fellowship and participation in the community have inherent spiritual value in Judaism.
The role of the Rabbi varies somewhat between different communities. The spiritual leader of an observant community is the Rabbi or in some communities, Rebbe. For the sake of this discussion, we shall solely use the term, Rabbi. One description provided for the rabbi states that
“A rabbi is there to service his community and provide them in all areas of life.… A rabbi …needs to encourage growth; foster unity amongst his respective community and promote Jewish identity and pride amongst his congregants. He must go into the crowd, and see what he can do to better this community and its people in all aspects, religious and social alike.
Another described the Rabbi as having the job to bring G-ds sovereignty into the world and over every part of our lives.One job description for a non-observant job still described the Rabbi as highly influential, stating that:
“A Rabbi serves the religious, spiritual, educational, and emotional needs of his or her congregation and sometimes the larger community with inspirational leadership. The Rabbi is instrumental in shaping and modeling the congregation’s religious and spiritual values for congregants and for the community.”
The coach should be prepared for any or all of the following statements from a client:
Wow, I think we really hit a great idea, let me check with the Rabbi about this.
I asked the Rabbi about your suggestion and…
- …he did not think it was a good idea.
- …he is concerned that it violates the halacha of X.
- …is concerned that it will have a negative impact on…
- My family
- My Community
- My learning
The Rabbi has always said that X …
- …is not a Jewish thing to do.
- …doesn’t violate Jewish Law but is not good.
The above statements should not lead one to believe that the observant Jewish client is a mindless sheep incapable of making a decision or self-care. This client understands that a Torah-based life requires a breadth of knowledge that they may not personally possess. It is to prepare the coach for a potential additional participant in the process. This is not always the case, but it can happen.
Unusual opportunities may become available to the coach. There is the frequently heard question “how would you describe this to a friend” or “what would you tell somebody in the same position?”. In this instance, the coach may be able to embrace the extra presence of a rabbinic figure. “What does the Rabbi need to know to understand what you are going through?”, “How would you explain to him what your ideal outcome looks like?” One might even be able to inquire as to “How could the Rabbi help you with your goal?”. Curiosity, a vital component of coaching, may well serve the coach in unexpected ways.
The Observant Jewish Client Sensitivities
As one can see, the observant Jewish client possesses a life overlay that can require new or refreshed sensitivities in the coach. Armed with a little foresight, the coach can avoid questions that appear insensitive or worse, offensive. The coach brings a refined dialogue to the process. The coach is aware of the client’s environment and asks questions that do not potentially belabor the obvious or require the client to spend time explaining what may feel like and what should be known.
A few key publishers can supply the majority of information for the interested coach. These being Artscroll Mesorah, Koren, Moznaim and Feldheim. For ease of use, the recommended reading list is limited to books written in English or available in English translation.
Greenwald, Rabbi Ze’Ev, Shaarei Halachah: A Summary of Laws for Jewish Living, Feldheim, 2000.
Donin, Hayim Halevy, to Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life, Basic Books, 1991.
Ganzfried, Rabbi Shlomo, and Tauber (Trans.) Rabbi Eliyahu, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Moznaim Publishing Company, 1991.
Forst, Rabbi Binyomin, the Laws of Kashrut, Artscroll Mesorah Publications, 1999.
Cohen, Rabbi Pinchas, a Practical Guide to Laws of Kashrut, Koren Publishers, 2019.
Silver, Rabbi Yizchok, Money in Halachah, Feldheim, 2014.
Cohen, Rabbi Simcha Bunim, the Laws of Shabbat, Artscroll Mesorah Publications, 2014.
 Mura, Agnes, International Journal of Coaching in Organizations, 2003, 1(4).
 Rosinski, Philippe, Coaching Across Cultures, International Journal of Coaching in Organizations, 2003, 1(4), P99.
Also Spelled Halachah and Halakhah.
 Kanarfogel, Ephraim, “Halakhah” in Bernard McGinn, ET AL., Eds., Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2008), 1.
Kanarfogel, Ephraim, “Halakhah” in Bernard McGinn, ET AL., Eds., Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2008), 1.
 Bleich, J. David, Contemporary Halakhic Problems V1, (New York, Ktav, 1977), Xiii.
 Deuteronomy 30:12; Bleich V1, Xiv.
 Bleich, V1, 84-87.
 for a Very Approachable Discussion, Please See the Article by Rabbi Shraga Simmons at https://www.aish.com/Jl/Jewish-Law/Daily-Living/28-Kashrut.HTML.
 Weinberg, Rabbi Noah, Shabbat – Heaven on Earth
 Deuteronomy 5:12.
 Heschel, Abraham Joshua, the Sabbath, (New York: Noonday Press 1994).8, 15.
 Bleich V2, 5.
 My Jewish Learning, Jewish Home and Community.
 Kogan, Rabbi Shmuel, What Is the Function of a Synagogue Rabbi?
 Goldstein, Rabbi Warren, a Framework for Rabbinic Leadership, Dialogue Magazine, Issue 6, Page 12.
 Temple Emek Shalom, Job Posting. Accessed at http://www.juddrobbins.com/Rabbi%20JOB%20DESCRIPTION.PDF.