Inclusion for Religious Minorities: Meet Dr. Bree Becker

Tell me about yourself and how your career led you to DEI

I think, in some ways, I was always geared up to do something DEI-related, whether as paid work or in some form of activism. I’m Jewish and was raised in a tradition that viewed an obligation to justice as a fundamental truth of our lives. For many Jews, that’s a huge part of Judaism. 

My mother’s parents were Holocaust survivors. Though they died while I was in elementary school, I spent my childhood with them and my entire life with their story. I grew up acutely aware of what happened to them, and I don’t have a memory of a time when I didn’t know about the Holocaust happening. In school, when kids were learning about it for the first time, I knew this was my family story. 

I grew up in a small rural community where we were the only Jewish family. Despite looking like everyone around me, I grew up with a really clear awareness of being different. Having grown up with my family’s survival of genocide, I knew there were risks associated with my identity. There was an awareness that people could turn into something to be afraid of and could pose an immediate threat to me or others at any possible moment. 

Until my mid 20’s, I thought I was going to be a rabbi; I have a bachelor’s degree in Jewish Studies with a minor in Holocaust Studies. When I realized I wanted to pursue a secular career, I looked for work that engaged with folks around a complex time in their lives and the transitions and choices that lead to moments of growth. At the time, I wanted to do a lot of what a rabbi does minus the religious pieces. So I ended up pursuing a master’s degree in Student Affairs Administration at Michigan State University to work with college students. I got involved in various ways that now, retrospectively, look like DEI. I advised an LGBTQ student caucus and wrote a diversity curriculum, which really helped me discover what I was interested in. 

Afterward, I continued my education at Michigan State to get a Ph.D. in Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education, and I wrote my dissertation about the role of Christian privilege in the college experiences of Jewish and Muslim undergraduates. This gave me some niche expertise including research knowledge in areas of DEI that are often less attended to like religious identity, an area of knowledge and discourse often avoided due to tremendous cultural discomfort with anything that makes us engage with the complexities and role of Christianity in our society. 

In college and graduate school and the years between and afterward, I found myself in many roles and spaces dedicated to activism. I was oftentimes the only Jew in the room and became the voice for Jewish needs and experiences. DEI was a natural result of the ways I interacted with the world and the professional things I wanted to do. 

How do your identities inform your work in DEI?

Jokingly and not, I sometimes refer to myself as a grab bag of marginalized identities in a white skin suit. That said, the power of whiteness in the US is not to be underestimated. I have a very unique and engaged relationship with my whiteness, partially because I grew up not thinking of myself as white. I did and didn’t misunderstand my whiteness. I grew up in the 1980s where the ways Jews who looked more or less like me were talked about was that we were neither white nor not white. My grandparents looked like me, but, in Europe, they were not considered white. After they came to the US, they experienced being white in a way that had not been available to them before that. I was really aware of conditional whiteness because my grandparents had become white in their lifetime, because of time passing and changing locations, without changing anything about the way they looked. 

In college, I spent a lot of time thinking about what it meant to be a white person in the ways I was experiencing it. I had to reevaluate a lot of how I understood where I was positioned in the world because I had existed (and still do) in this liminal space. I think this is true for a lot of folks who come from some sort of experience of conditional whiteness. Nonetheless, in the US, that also means I’m coming into DEI work with this mega-dominant identity that I need to be mindful of perpetually that hands me power that has nothing to do with anything I actually did. 

And then I bring a range of marginalized identities that inform my work in various ways. Some of them I share with a lot of people and some of them are less common identities. There aren’t many Jews in secular DEI so I am cognizant of the fact that I am often going to be the only one in this space. A lot of times that means I am the only voice for Jews. 

But in general, as someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about identity and prodding at places of uncomfortable conversations, I’m able to bring perspective from the identity work I did for myself to my job and day-to-day awareness. 

What are some common issues that you see with clients?

In the US, we’re structured so that gender and race play a huge role in how we interact with identity, power, and privilege. That said, all other types of identities play a role in how they intersect with the bigger players, race and gender, which change with the context of each individual interaction. For this reason, organizations I work with are not really thinking about the needs of people in ways that are outside of the more familiar race and gender-based models of power and privilege. 

Jews are an ethnoreligious group. Most people in the US have separate ethnic and religious identities, but this is not the case for Jews (though Jews can be multiethnic, of course). As a result, organizations, and even most people, don’t think about how religion can be cultural or even tribal. 

What I see from clients is that they don’t want to attend to anything related to religion if they are not a religious organization. I think this feels like dangerous territory, and so organizations steer as far away from it as possible. Because they avoid religion, they rarely see that there is a broad range of unmet structural and process needs for religious minorities. 

Due to this discomfort in engaging with religious identity and a lack of religious literacy, organizations are oftentimes unaware of the religious diversity of their employee population and what that means. Instead, Christianity is typically centered, and there are assumptions made about employees’ needs and religious identities, especially because religious identity is not always visible. 

For Jews, this lack of awareness and religious literacy can lead to higher levels of exclusion in the workplace. Right now, Jews are increasingly anxious, as we see violent events and antisemitic incidents unfold more and more. For me that feels close to both my personal and my professional self. Before Tangible Development, I ran a small Jewish nonprofit; I was in that role during the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting. Several of my final meetings as I was wrapping up my time at that job were devoted to arranging the donation and installation of blast resistant window film to cover all the building’s windows to protect folks inside–to socialize, learn, or worship–from flying glass if someone chose to denote an explosive outside. This environment makes it harder and scarier to ask for accommodations, so it’s important for the employer to have a better understanding of religion and the ways to structure their policies around religious needs. Again, this is also important for addressing cultural needs because religious and cultural needs can be interconnected. 

What are simple ways clients and organizations can be more inclusive starting today?

Organizations need to have a base level of knowledge and awareness around religion. For this reason, it is also important to collect more complex demographic data beyond what is legally required of employers. Collecting data through a climate survey is a great way to get a full understanding of your employee population so you can understand who is working for you and how you can make accommodations for their needs proactively. 

It’s also important to have a read on the environment around you where your employees are working. There are places where there are a lot of Jews, and there are places where there aren’t many of us. In places where there are a lot of Jews, and this is true of most minority religious groups, there is a wide range of identities within that Jewish population. It’s important to be mindful that although there is a stereotype of what Jews look like, the truth is that Jews come from all possible racial or national backgrounds. This means that there could be a broader spectrum of folks within a religious group than employers are aware of, and that’s important if they are looking for solutions to their DEI-related problems. 

There are a few other practical things employers can do to address issues experienced by Jews and other minority religious groups, including Muslims, as well. There are needs for religious groups that most organizations are not set up to meet very well. The standard company calendar and PTO are usually structured around Christian and national holidays. Folks should be able to have their religious holidays off; it should be built into the company’s structure.  

It’s also important to take a look at company calendars and see what’s being prioritized in terms of religious needs versus company needs. Is flexibility built in? Can you give additional floating holidays? There are a variety of ways to make this equitable, but it requires folks to look at their calendars and look at their time off policies. It is also important to keep in mind that the Gregorian calendar is a Christian-based calendar so Jewish holidays (and, for example, Muslim holidays) won’t be on the same day every year on the “secular” calendar.  Jewish holidays happen at the same time of the year on the Gregorian calendar; Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are always in the fall. However, other traditions use their own calendars so holidays may change not only dates but also seasons year to year. Having a practice of consulting a calendar of diverse holidays before scheduling, especially for major events, is a simple and powerful tool to mitigate the impact of a calendar that privileges Christians. 

Food is another place where there are needs for accommodations and where those needs can be anticipated. Checking whether folks keep kosher, which not all Jews do, and the different food accommodations that might be needed from different religions and their dietary rules and traditions. 

Finally, language choices convey a lot about who is valued in a workplace. Checking language for antisemitism and/or the centering of Christians should be part of organizational inclusive language. One thing I’ve noticed recently, both from people engaged in DEI work and those opposed to it, is a big uptick in the word “cabal” being used to mean a secret, powerful group. Cabal, as a word, comes from kabbalah, Jewish mysticism; the implication of cabal is a secret, power (Jewish) group running things–a longstanding and deadly antisemitic conspiracy theory.  

The point is that being an inclusive employer means proactive planning is essential. Providing a menu of accommodations, acknowledging the presence and needs of Jewish and other religious minority employees before employees encounter barriers, valuing religious literacy, avoiding antisemitic language, and de-centering the Christian calendar all communicate a clear message that religious minorities are welcome in the workplace.