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fALL 2004  
Vol. 33, No. 1

FOCUS: Navigating Antisemitic Encounters

by Lawrence D. Gibson

Life was good in 1957. My wife and I were young, healthy, and in love. Our split-level in Demarest, New Jersey was crowded--we had four sons. We didn't have any money, but my salary was growing. We were living the "American Dream."

At the age of 30, I had become director of commercial research at a successful food processing company, in charge of marketing research, sales forecasting for production planning, advertising, and more. My boss and I were playing key roles in the company. He was clearly marked for senior management, and I had a great start to become the company's "gray eminence"--one who wields power and influence behind the scenes.

One Wednesday afternoon, I interviewed an impressive job applicant named Ms. Kline for the position of marketing research assistant. This charming young woman possessed all the job qualifications, scored 39 out of 40 on our intelligence test, and was exceptionally articulate. As I had to fly the next day to our company's Illinois plant, I instructed my personnel manager to offer Ms. Kline the job.

On Friday, I called the personnel manager to find out whether Ms. Kline had accepted our offer and learned that no offer had been extended. "Why?" I inquired. He responded cryptically: "We didn't think it would be good for you."

With some foreboding, I pointed out that for this purpose I was line and he was staff, that I wanted to hire Ms. Kline, and that he should immediately make the offer. (The staff/line distinction was a major matter in those days.) "Larry, you don't understand," he said. "This issue has already been discussed at the executive vice president level." Cutting off my protests, he told me to discuss the matter with my boss when he returned on Monday.

I was furious. The issue was clear--they did not want Ms. Kline because she was Jewish. Too angry and frustrated to think clearly, I spent that entire Friday afternoon riding the Battery Park ferry back and forth between Manhattan and Staten Island.

My rage did not subside. Shabbat family dinner did not calm me, nor did Friday night services. After a bad night's sleep, I awoke dreading the Monday meeting. How could I articulate my anger to my boss? I felt helpless.

Finally, in desperation, I called my rabbi, Chanan Brichto of Temple Sinai in Tenafly, New Jersey. He graciously agreed to see me in his home.

As Rabbi Brichto poured tea, I explained as calmly as I could what had happened. When I finished, Rabbi Brichto said, "I understand the situation, Larry, but why are you so angry?"

I repeated the story, trying to make him understand. His response was the same: "Why are you so angry, Larry?"

As my frustration grew, Rabbi Brichto asked, "Surely you aren't surprised to see antisemitism at your company?" When I didn't respond, he queried, "How many vice presidents does the organization have? How many are Jewish?"

"Ten vice presidents, and none are Jewish," I replied sullenly.

"How many Jewish vice presidents did your previous employer have?"

"None. So what?"

"Larry, you chose to work at companies that have antisemitic employment policies. You must have known. Why are you so angry now?"

"I suppose I did know," I admitted. "In the back of my mind, I always thought that I might be one of the first Jews to succeed in this kind of environment, and that I could create opportunities for other Jews. But--that still doesn't make this situation right."

"Did the fact that you were Jewish ever come up when you were being promoted to director?"

"Yes. They asked me what my attitude would be toward hiring Jews, and I told them I would have no attitude. And I told them that I did understand that if the department ever became dominantly Jewish, its effectiveness could be impaired."

Rabbi Brichto smiled benignly. "So you agreed from the outset that being Jewish was relevant to your job. If there ever was a moral principle here, you abandoned it long ago. You've agreed to a quota. Now it's just a practical question: Should the quota be 90% or 10%? So why are you so angry, Larry?"

By now, I was reduced to absolute silence. Seething with anger, I stood up and started to put on my jacket.

Rabbi Brichto held up his hand. "Sit down, Larry, and I'll tell you why you are so angry. In the first place, they have told you not to hire Ms. Kline because she's Jewish. This is insensitive, thoughtless, and deeply offensive. How dare they ask this of you?

"But there is a much more serious issue. They are telling you to do something that violates your moral principles, and you so much want to belong, to be accepted, you are considering violating your standards and going along with their decision. You hate yourself for being so weak, but you hate them even more for putting you into this position, for exposing you to your own weakness.

"Larry," he explained, "the issue of morality never comes up for discussion as long as you are functioning according to your own moral standards. Only when you are considering violating your principles--as you are now--does the issue arise."

Suddenly I calmed down. I understood, and I knew what I had to do. The rage, the frustration, the confusion were all gone. Only a certain melancholy remained as I thought about the likely outcome.

On Monday, my boss came to my office and started to explain why hiring Ms. Kline would be a serious mistake. I interrupted him. "Mac, let me be very clear," I said, "The company has given me objectives and resources to accomplish those objectives. After carefully considering all the relevant issues, I believe it would be a wise use of those resources to hire Ms. Kline. So long as I have any influence in the matter, I will make her the offer. If you don't want me to hire her, then you have to say it. You have to tell me, 'Don't hire her.' Of course, if you do tell me not to offer Ms. Kline the job, she won't be hired. You are more truly representative of the company than I am. However, you should understand that if you tell me not to hire her, you will have said something about your company--not my company."

I must confess I felt a certain admiration for my boss when he said, "All right, Larry. Don't hire her." I knew he wasn't the source of the problem; he was just doing the dirty work for the company's "old guard."

Most of the fallout from the incident was predictable. I resigned from the company a few months later. My boss and several vice presidents tried to convince me to stay, that I could become "one of them," but I had made up my mind. My new job paid 50% more, but it had far fewer responsibilities and challenges. Only after bouncing through several short-term marketing research positions was I able to settle down to a twenty-year stint as director of marketing research at General Mills.

I have rethought and relived this incident many times over the last forty-five years, as it fundamentally redirected my life. While I made a good living at General Mills, I was always an outsider. I missed my sole opportunity to be a "gray eminence," but that opportunity was never real. I would not, could not, pay the price.

Rabbi Brichto had understood my dilemma perfectly. He knew what was happening deep inside me; he knew me far better than I knew myself; and he found a way to make me see and accept the truth about myself. He didn't tell me what to do. He made me understand the issues; then I knew what I had to do.

These insights have continued to serve me over the years. It has become second nature to recognize that whenever I find myself thinking about morality, I am confronting a possible violation of my principles. At that point, what I have to do becomes obvious and inescapable.

Today, at 77, when I get angry at business associates, acquaintances, or even my wife, I stop and listen to Rabbi Brichto's persistent question--"Why are you so angry, Larry?" And I realize that I'm angry at myself for what I did or didn't do or am thinking about doing. When I recognize that I am the problem, I can do something about it. And when I adjust my behavior, the anger goes away.

For these insights, I will always remember and be grateful to Rabbi Chanan Brichto.

A few years after our meeting, Rabbi Brichto left Temple Sinai to become professor of Bible studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. A brilliant, tough-minded, unconventional scholar and teacher, he mentored and inspired a generation of Reform rabbis. At the end, when he could no longer go to the classroom, his students would come to his home to sit at his feet and learn Torah--his own "Tuesdays at Chanan's."

At my old company, my boss transformed the organization and concluded his career as chairman of the board. The personnel manager retired as president of a major division.

Oh yes, Ms. Kline. Shortly after her application was rejected, she was hired by an antisemitic stock brokerage firm--it turns out, she wasn't Jewish.

Lawrence D. Gibson is a member of Temple Israel in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

First Place Award Winner for Excellence in Jewish Journalism
and a Benefit of Membership in a Union Congregation

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