What’s in a name?

rose

Those of you who have been following my blog for a while know that I am fascinated by the subject of labels, credentials, gender roles, and the outer signs of conformity utilized to belong to a group. Some of the labels I have discussed deal with general components of being orthodox – are you a baal teshuvah (BT) or frum from birth (FFB), off the derech or on the derech, and to which derech do you ultimately subscribe? I find it interesting that a person’s general outlook on life is expected to be easily categorized on shidduch resume boxes such as: Black Hat Yeshivish/Haredi/Haredi Light/ Modern Orthodox/Religious Zionist /Chasidish/Balebatish/Frum – But With It/Just Plain Frum.

We like to categorize people and organize them onto their appropriate shelves. It’s much neater when people follow a certain pattern and are predictable. However, most people are multidimensional; capable of surprising us at the oddest moments. Just when we think we can anticipate someone’s position on a matter based on our cataloging, we are either unexpectedly pleased or disappointed.

I can think of several times where I went against the grain of what people expected of me on this blog and got a lot of pushback. For example, I am very outspoken about believing that the off the derech community has valuable information to impart to those of us still within orthodoxy. We need to hear their experiences and why they chose to leave in order to better ourselves. Therefore, when I wrote a piece wondering whether or not off the derech groups were simply another religion in disguise, I got reamed by people who felt betrayed by my musings.

Even though I continue to see myself as an advocate for the voices of Jews who have chosen to leave orthodoxy, I still am someone who asks a lot of questions to understand something better – questions that can sometimes be controversial. Incidentally, I made a number of new Facebook friends with people who are off the derech because of that post. People who understood that my question was not meant to be condemning, but rather, was sociological in nature with no judgment behind it.

Another post for which I got a lot of shocked and negative feedback was the one in which I challenged my readers to reevaluate my posts as if they had been written by a man. Would there be more weight to my opinions if I carried the credentials of a learned man? Admittedly, my method was rather sneaky, as I pretended to be coming out as a male; not revealing it was a hoax until the final paragraph.

It took weeks for some people to really believe that I was a woman. Even months later, I saw people referencing my blog on Facebook by saying that I had admitted to really being a man named Chananya Pollak. Again, I really wanted to know the difference in the reader’s perspective between a man or a woman writing down the same opinions. How does our gender affect our credibility?

Probably the most common subject area that earns me virtual angry mobs bearing torches is that of orthodox Judaism. I identify as being orthodox (don’t ask me which checkbox I am, because I have no clue) and as an orthodox woman people expect a certain amount of reverence, tzniut, and proper discretion when discussing issues related to the community. There are so many posts I’ve written that people have argued are a chillul Hashem, airing our dirty laundry in public, or just plain loshon hara. I have been accused of haredi bashing, being a self-hating Jew, and an anti-Torah Jew.

People who might have read one of my posts painting orthodoxy in a romantic light, are shocked to read another piece that is critical; especially because I am a woman.  I’ve often wondered what readers would think if I pulled the same stunt as I did with Chananya Pollak – only this time revealing that I wasn’t really orthodox.  I’m sure self-hating Jew would be upgraded to anti-Semite in the flash of a post upload.

Because I’ve been known to sometimes offend other allies with my opinions, it comes as no surprise that my latest post on feminism has drawn the ire of women who once counted me among their ranks. While I still see myself as marching side by side with others who speak out for women’s rights, apparently, because I don’t label myself as a feminist I am, to summarize a few of the choicer accusations – shallow, ungrateful, misogynistic, a product of white privilege, ignorant, uneducated in feminist thought/ideology, disrespecting the hard work of those in the movement, bitter and hateful toward feminism, brainwashed by orthodox patriarchy, unsympathetic to the plight of working women struggling with poverty, and the list goes on.

All of the risks, ideas, and words I’ve expended on writing about women’s rights to self-determination and freedom from oppression didn’t evaporate the moment I dared to say I don’t identify as a feminist. It’s still me, just unencumbered by a group name.  In a way, the responses I received only confirm the premise of my post –  that feminism attempts to define what a woman should be, as opposed to women defining their own version of feminism and themselves.

Late last year, I was messaging with a well known and controversial blogger. I was in the middle of a backlash from the frum community over a post I had written, and I told this blogger that I didn’t think I had a tough enough skin to continue to write – or at least to continue to write honestly. This person told me that over time I would see that when a writer’s work invokes an angry reaction, it means they are doing something right, because they hit a nerve.

Once the initial anger fizzles out, that’s when the actual introspection can occur over the core ideas presented, and positive changes can take place. I was also told that while it always stings, at least a little bit, when people don’t agree with your position, you do develop a thicker skin over time. The ball was in my court as to whether or not to continue blogging.

Obviously, I did choose to continue writing, and I have no regrets. That being said, I am going on an indefinite blogging hiatus to work on a longer writing project, which I hope will provide an incentive for positive change in the realm of child sexual abuse in the frum community. I’m sure I will be lured back to blogging by the occasional hot topic or a passing revelation that I have the burning need to jot down for posterity. However, I had planned to start on this project after yom tov, and that time has arrived. I encourage those of you who are made of hardy stock to start your own blogs and pick up where people like me have left off or even pick up where we never began. I still believe that by speaking out we can make a difference.

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Why I am not a feminist

I was recently described in a Chicago Tribune article as being “a feminist Orthodox Jew,” and I disagree with the description. I have had this disagreement with more than one of my blog readers, and apparently, whether or not I am a feminist is a point of contention with some folks.

To illustrate why I don’t identify as a feminist, I can look to a recent article about how George Clooney’s new wife, successful attorney Amal Alamuddin, has changed her name to Amal Clooney. Her decision to adopt her husband’s surname has upset feminists around the globe.

Natalie Matthews of Elle magazine said she felt:

“a twinge of disappointment” because “women keeping their maiden names is not just a rare phenomenon but a decreasing one.”

Other women defended Mrs. Clooney’s right to take her husband’s last name:

“Caroline Schumer, 27, from Carroll Gardens, rallies for a woman’s right to choose to be Mrs. Clooney.

“I’m proudly taking my fiancé’s name,” she says. “I don’t think it’s anti-feminist to take your man’s last name.”

Accountant Nicole George, 35, from the West Village, agrees. “I don’t believe in that feminist [bs],” she says. “Do what you want.””

The debate over whether or not a woman should adopt her husband’s name rang a 21 year old bell.

During my college years, I was well on my way to becoming a staunch feminist. Back in the 1990s I was floating in a sea of feminist ideas from Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Naomi Wolf, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Atwood, and Erica Jong.

I remember when I was 21 and dating my husband, he gave me his departmental honor key pin as a symbol of our budding romance. The first day I wore it to my Women in Literature class, my professor took one look at the pin and declared that I deserved an honor key of my own, and didn’t have to wear one that belonged to a man. Until then I had been flattered to receive such a prized possession. However, after her remark I felt rather ashamed to wear it, and it remained in my jewelry box.

When I became engaged at 22, several of my college friends asked if I was going to take my husband’s last name. They posed the question as a challenge. I realized that quite a few of my peers had kept their maiden names or adopted a hyphenated version of their maiden and married names.

I hadn’t really thought about it, but when I practiced saying Sharon Shapiro, the newness and (in my opinion) obnoxious alliteration of my first name and his last name was a turn off. I decided to keep my maiden name upon marriage as can be seen in our wedding bencher –

Of course, this won me the approval of my college feminist acquaintances, yet was completely overlooked by my new orthodox friends and family who called me Sharon Shapiro or Mrs. Shapiro despite the fact that I didn’t legally change my name. Keeping your maiden name simply isn’t done in the orthodox community, so nobody assumed that I had kept mine. If a feminist makes a social statement in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does she make a sound?

“Feminist” is a dirty word in frum society. In fact, I have even heard women who have made statements that could be construed as feminist sentiments preface their remarks by saying, “Chas v’shalom, I don’t mean to sound like a feminist, because I’m not…”

Of course, those frum people who decry feminism and do everything to distance themselves from the movement often have never been anywhere near a feminist or an academic or political feminist hub. They simply see feminism as a group of bitter spinsters who probably weren’t attractive enough to snag husbands and who always harbored a secret desire to be men themselves.

Feminism is accused of being the downfall of the nuclear family in secular society and is seen as a cult that will take away our young women and lure them with freedoms and possibilities that are unavailable to them in the orthodox world. If women eschew their domestic roles as wives and mothers, or start demanding leadership roles in spiritual areas ordained solely for men, orthodoxy will cease to exist.

I was chugging along pretty nicely in the eyes of feminism during my first years of marriage. I had stuck to my principles and kept my maiden name, I was working in a professional capacity in the field of my choice, and I was also the breadwinner in our family because my husband was in medical school.

A few years later, I got pregnant, had a baby, and a funny thing happened to my state of mind. When they handed me my newborn son, he was wearing a little hospital ID bracelet with the name “Baby Myers” on it. My husband was not pleased. Neither was I. Our family structure had just radically changed. My husband and I were no longer just two individuals linked together in marriage, we were the heads of a new family. My gut feeling was that a family should have the same last name to show the world their connection.

Of course, some people would say that my husband could have changed his last name to mine and we could have all been the Myers family. Some people would say that I could have adopted the hyphenated version of my last name and my husband’s last name so that I would share a portion of my growing family’s name while still retaining my roots. However, that just didn’t feel right to me. Therefore, on a cold autumn day, portable car seat and baby in tow, I went down to the DMV and officially changed my last name to Shapiro. Three years after my marriage we were officially Mishpacha Shapiro.

To me, that’s what feminism should be all about – the right to make choices about what’s best for ourselves and our families. It’s perfectly fine for women to hold tight to their maiden name and be proud of their heritage. I have absolutely no problem with any woman who wants to keep or add on to her original surname. Therefore, why is it that I am considered to have caved in to patriarchy because I chose to adopt my husband’s last name?

That was only one offense to cause my feminist card to be revoked. The first came even before my marriage when I chose to become orthodox. I’m not going to delve into all of the feminist arguments against joining a religious sect in which our sons are taught in yeshiva that women are too emotional and irrational to be trusted with making decisions, serving as witnesses in court, or serving in leadership roles. Needless to say, I lost a lot of feminist street cred with that decision.

As time went on, I grew into the role of a working mother. Although I worked for some impressive firms throughout my career, as my husband finished his training and his career began to blossom, my professional life was always outshined by his. When we would be introduced to a new couple at shul, the initial question would usually be asked of my husband, “What do you do?” As soon as he replied that he was a doctor, all conversation steered around his impressive profession.

I have been asked more often, “What’s it like to be married to a doctor?” than I’ve been asked “What do you do as a career?” or even “Do you work outside the home?” Being a doctor is a trump card that steals all professional attention away from the other spouse – especially when it’s the husband who is the doctor. I wonder if male spouses of female doctors get the same brush off?

A few years ago, my department closed at the firm where I worked, and I became a stay at home mother. Talk about eyes glazing over upon introduction! Again, most people already assume I don’t work because my spouse is a physician – this was true even when I was working. However, most people who do bother to ask what I do, immediately indicate their disinterest upon hearing my current reply – unless it’s another stay at home mom asking the question.

In fact, I was rather amused at being grilled about my work status for the Tribune article. Since I don’t have any profession to speak of, I was identified as “a blogger on Jewish issues.” Apparently my little ol’ blog plays a much more prominent role in my identity than I had previously thought!

In any event, giving up a career to be a stay at home mom certainly doesn’t conform to feminist ideals. Women should and could have it all – the marriage, the kids, the degrees, the high powered career, and if you are an orthodox feminist – a role as an accomplished balebustah to boot! Nothing has to give – except our strength and sanity. It’s all a competition to juggle multiple fire torches and make sure no one gets burned. That’s what 21st century feminism seems to be about.

I feel like there has been a break between being an activist for women’s rights and the feminist label. It’s imperative that women speak out for the right to equal pay for equal work, the right to safe and legal abortions, the right to equal educational opportunities, the right to pursue any career or leadership option of our choosing, the right to be legally protected against domestic violence (or any violence), the right to have a voice at the table in our government, etc. When it comes to speaking out about women’s issues – that’s an ongoing conversation that will continue to have relevance until women are no longer exploited for being women.

However, feminism, in my mind, has become a limited term. It’s an identity label forged by other women who want to determine what female enlightenment should look like. At the same time feminism advocates for self-determination, it negates any option that conforms to traditional norms. Women who choose to follow the paths of their mothers and grandmothers are often not respected as representing the progressive ideals that feminists believe are empowering.

In 1992, Hillary Clinton made headlines, as she asserted herself as a successful career woman in her own right during her husband’s election campaign:

“I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life.”

Conservatives and Democrats alike critiqued her statement as being condescending to wives and mothers. She was accused and suspected of being a virulent feminist. Feminists embraced her message, and welcomed a first lady who, if she could not yet run for president herself, at least could be taken seriously as a politician and expert lawyer in her own right.

I was 22 at the time Hillary Clinton made her cookie statement. I remembered my own stay at home mom’s delicious cookies, and thought her remarks were rather condescending.  However, although I thought Mrs. Clinton was a bit harsh, I aimed to follow in her footsteps and not those of my mother.

Cut to 22 years later.

Before the last days of yom tov, I decided to make a treat for my children – my homemade cookies. Admittedly, I don’t enjoy baking very much, but when I set my mind to it, by golly I can bake as good of a batch of cookies as any balebustah!

Several of my kids were in raptures as they tasted the warm chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven. Over yom tov, my youngest son made me arrange a plate of the cookies to bring out for dessert, although we already had fruit and cake on the table. As he brought them out to the sukkah on Shemini Atzeret, I overheard him telling our guests with pride, “My mom made these cookies! You have to try them, they are the best chocolate chip cookies you will ever taste!”

In his words I could hear that he felt all of the love, effort, and promise that went into those cookies. Although I haven’t a clue what my general purpose is for being put on this earth, there is one purpose I know I have without a shadow of a doubt, and that’s being my kids’ mom.

There are worse things in life to be famous for than a good batch of homemade cookies. That’s why I am not a feminist.

There’s a shark in the mikvah

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A prominent modern orthodox Georgetown rabbi has been accused of secretly filming women showering at the mikvah. Dr. Barry Freundel has been accused of secretly installing at least one hidden camera inside Congregation Kesher Israel’s mikvah. The mikvah has three changing rooms, one mikvah pool, and is used by men and women during different hours. Kesher Israel’s board issued this statement on their website:

“Upon receiving information regarding potentially inappropriate activity, the board of directors quickly alerted the appropriate officials,” the board said in a statement. “Throughout the investigation, we cooperated fully with law enforcement and will continue to do so.

After today’s arrest of Rabbi Dr. Barry Freundel, the Board of Directors suspended him without pay.”

Freundel has served as Kesher Israel’s rabbi since 1989.  The synagogue boasts of influential congregants such as former Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman and President Obama’s former Chief of Staff, Jack Lew. Freundel is also an adjunct instructor at the University of Maryland and an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law School. He is also teaching as an associate professor in the philosophy and religious studies department at Towson University this semester.

Additionally, Freundel sits on the executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. Freundel also heads the RCA’s conversion committee and also is vice president of the Washington D.C.’s regional Vaad, which oversees kosher dietary laws at Jewish institutions.

Police swarmed Freundel’s home on Tuesday morning where he was arrested and brought into overnight custody. The police spent hours investigating and were seen leaving Freundel’s home with computers and hard drives. A reporter with Washington D.C.’s local Fox television station reported on Twitter that Freundel was arrested for “electronic voyeurism” and “had cameras in ladies rooms.”

Apparently, a 35 year old woman saw the 62 year old Freundel installing a motion detecting camera disguised as a digital alarm clock, known as The Dream Machine. Freundel allegedly told the woman that he was fixing the shower ventilation.

Congregation Kesher Israel deserves kudos for immediately reporting their suspicions to authorities and suspending Freundel without pay until his innocence or guilt can be established. During an era when so many Jewish institutions and communities have been called out for covering up sex crimes, Kesher Israel’s board took a brave and difficult step by reporting their leader to the police.

During one of the happiest seasons of the Jewish calendar, Kesher Israel’s congregants are now reeling from this horrible revelation. One woman was quoted in The Forward as saying,

“I feel incredibly uncomfortable and my privacy violated,” said the woman, who asked not to be named to protect her privacy. “It’s just really sad that such a beautiful thing is now kind of tainted and turned into something that’s quite ugly.”

I’ve written at length on my blog about the challenges of the mitzvah of mikvah. I posted a letter from a woman who finds it a constant struggle not to feel resentful over this mitzvah. I’ve posted about traumatizing experiences with the female conversion process. I even recently posted some suggestions on how women can empower themselves during the conversion process, one of which was to go through a reputable organization such as the RCA – where Freundel is in charge of the conversion committee! Now I have to wonder if he allows Dream Machines to record the proceedings. Is anything sacred?

I think many orthodox Jews, at one time or another, have joked about what goes on inside of a mikvah – or rather, what outsiders would think of the activities inside a seemingly innocuous building. Most passersby would never dream that they were walking past a ritual bathhouse. Hearing reporters refer to the mikvah as a “ritual shower” brings home how foreign the concept is to others.

I remember many years ago, my husband and I were looking into renting an apartment adjacent to our local mikvah. We joked that we could supplement our income by installing a “mikvah cam” from our window and streaming the contents on the web. It doesn’t seem so funny now. If the allegations are true, who knows if the recorded footage remained only on Freund’s computer or if he shared it with others online?

When I was newly married, there was a popular book called The Ritual Bath, about a woman who was raped upon coming home from the mikvah. Of course, the book garnered popularity because of its salacious subject matter, but I think that many frum women were also drawn to it because there is a certain vulnerability that goes along with attending the mikvah.

The mikvah ritual is performed after dark and the mikvah building publicizes that others should stay away to protect the privacy of women. As such, a woman going to the mikvah could find herself temporarily stranded alone outside the building if the attendant hasn’t arrived yet. Various mikvahs have different levels of security – some use cameras, others have alarm systems, others have combination locks at the front door, and still others utilize old fashioned lock and key arrangements under the purview of the mikvah ladies.

Regardless of the strength of the building security, there will always be a sense of potential defenselessness that goes along with getting undressed in a strange building. If there was a sudden need for evacuation during mikvah hours, there would be hordes of women spilling out into the street in various states of undress.

There is also an issue with mikvah facilities that are shared between women and men during different hours. Some communities have separate sex facilities, but others, such as Kesher Israel’s mikvah, are used at different times by both genders. This type of arrangement can leave women vulnerable to room tampering.

I have to admit, since the remodel of my local mikvah, I’ve been paranoid about hidden cameras. My first bout of paranoia erupted during the construction. The mikvah remained open throughout, but there was a lengthy period of time when none of the preparation rooms had ceilings! The prep rooms were essentially like cubicles and you could hear everything that went on in the rooms next door. It would have been easy for someone to install overhead cameras to peer down inside each shower. After the construction was completed, the community was allowed to tour the new facilities during a grand re-opening celebration. Anyone could have planted hidden cameras in the rooms! My husband thinks I’m crazy.

In fact, there is never a time when I go to the mikvah that I don’t check out the sprinkler (is it really a camera?), the mirror (is that a two way mirror in disguise?), or any wall hangings. Not that I have any clue what to look for. At least now I know that if there is a random 1980s style digital clock propped on the marble vanity, it’s a Dream Machine, or rather, the stuff of nightmares.

New ruling exempts women 45 and up from modesty laws

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It is with a glad heart that I received word of a new psak exempting women aged 45 and older from the laws of tznius!

As I look forward to my approaching 45th birthday, I can now also happily anticipate the freedom of relaxed rules of modesty. I’m glad the gedolim finally realized that men don’t give a fig about seeing the upper arms of a middle-aged matron, nor do they swoon at the sight of varicose veined upper thighs (except out of horror).

Of course, this change of standards will bring a different look and feel to our communities. For example, Bais Yaakov classrooms will still be filled with modestly uniformed girls with their hair neatly pulled back into place. However, at the helm of these classrooms might be BY alumni sporting a long gray braid, low rider jeans, and Doc Marten combat boots.

Weddings will also look different, as the younger female crowd will still adhere to wearing b’tznius gowns and sticking to their side of the mechitza. However, the older women will be able to experiment with every type of fashion option. Plunging necklines and spaghetti straps will abound for the older set, as gravity naturally eliminates any hint of cleavage (which begins somewhere around navel level for us golden girls). Mini dresses and bare legs will also be a fashion trend, as sagging skin makes it impossible to decipher whether or not we are wearing stockings.

Simcha dancing will also have a different tone as grandmothers, mothers, and assorted older female relatives and friends can now join the men’s side. Men and women will both need to brush up on dancing skills beyond the circle dance, the choo-choo train shuffle, and the arm clasp ring. Mixed dancing will be a novel change – with handsome young men paired with buxom older dames dancing the night away.

Those women who object to being put out to pasture during what they consider to be their prime can obtain an “exemption from the exemption.” All they need to do is go to a beis din with 3 male witnesses who can attest to the fact that the woman in question can still distract them from thoughts of Torah. If the men would still refuse to sit next to her on public transportation, she will be issued a card affirming her lingering sex appeal. As such, she will still be required to continue adhering to the ever evolving laws of tznius until the card’s expiration date, at which time she will be required to appear before the beis din to determine her renewal status.

Looking forward to seeing you all on the other side of the mechitza in January!

Peer Pressure

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I was recently listening to a radio interview with someone who spoke about the pre-Rosh Hashanah seating fiasco at El Al airlines. The interviewee claimed that several years ago, a few prominent Israeli haredi rabbis were in negotiations with El Al to create seating accommodations for religious passengers. The sex segregated rows wouldn’t have access to in-flight movies, nor would they be near passengers eating treif food. El Al agreed to offer these accommodations and the rabbis made announcements to their followers that they could now book tickets in these “kosher rows.”

Apparently, the resulting demand for kosher seating was so low, that El Al decided to discontinue the offering. The punchline is that what haredi leaders want is not necessarily what the average haredi wants.

I found the discussion interesting, because it somewhat mirrored a theory I shared with my husband. My supposition is that when an average ultra orthodox man is seated next to a woman on a flight and can’t find someone willing to switch, as long as there are no other familiar haredim in the vicinity, he will be more willing to sit in his assigned seat. However, if he is on a flight with a number of other men from his community who are seated separately, he will be less likely to acquiesce to mixed seating. To sit next to a woman in front of a jury of peers, all of whom are adhering to separate seating, would be more intolerable than the act of sitting next to a woman itself.

The peer pressure to conform to halachic or chumradik standards isn’t reserved for the ultra orthodox community. For example, it’s not uncommon for some orthodox Jews to be more lax in their standards of kashrut or tznius while on vacation than at home in their communities.

For instance, while enjoying a family outing at a theme park, perhaps the purchase of a hot Super Pretzel or freshly squeezed lemonade might be an acceptable treat. However, if that same family was at the theme park with a large orthodox Jewish group, and no other Jews were taking the risk of buying a kosher pretzel heated in an unsupervised oven or lemonade made from lemons cut with a knife which might have also been used for treif foods, the family might refrain from indulging while in such company.

Similarly, there are orthodox families who regularly enjoy vacationing at waterparks, yet wouldn’t dream of swimming in a mixed crowd at a hotel Shabbaton. Such events usually arrange for separate men’s and women’s pool hours, and it’s rare to see participants swim outside of those parameters. Is it the opposition to mixed swimming, the fear of publicly violating standards of modesty in front of fellow orthodox Jews, or respect for the rules set down by the Shabbaton organizers that prevent such families from indulging in a mixed activity they would normally relish?

I am not saying that there aren’t folks who consistently hold to their halachic standards and customs even outside of their communities. I’m sure there are plenty of people who strive for such consistency and take pride in it. However, how many customs are taken on, not because of halachic considerations, but because of peer pressure?

White tablecloths are more Shabbosdik, so would you dare to host guests using a colored cloth? Long wigs are pritzudik, so would any tznius woman be seen in a wig longer than shoulder length? Smartphones are the devil’s device, so would you openly use one in full view of other community members?

However, if you weren’t having guests for Shabbos, would a purple tablecloth be your preference? If you were going to a party for work, would you bust out your long sheitel for a gathering with non-Jewish co-workers who won’t judge you? Are you a gadget geek who secretly pre-orders the latest iPhone but has a “kosher phone” for use around other orthodox Jews?

Do we do things more out of fear of our fellow man or out of fear of Hashem?