Family Values


Published September 09, 2009, issue of September 18, 2009.
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Be fruitful and multiply. But if you work for a Jewish communal organization in America, you probably won’t be able to count on help from your employer.

That’s the message from a massive study conducted by the organization Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, which found that only 35% of Jewish communal organizations have paid maternity-leave policies, even though three-quarters of their employees are women. Just over half of the organizations offer unpaid leave, and one in 10 have nothing at all to help new mothers after they give birth. What do these organizations expect? Give birth on the weekend and show up at work on Monday?

But this is America, one of only two industrialized nations in the world without paid maternity leave (the other is Australia). Here, thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave is now required, but only if you have worked for a large company for at least a year.

In 2007, researchers at Harvard and McGill universities found that the United States is one of only five countries out of 173 surveyed without some form of paid maternity leave guaranteed nationally. We rank right down there at the bottom, along with Lesotho, Liberia, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea.

It’s not just the company we keep; it’s the message we send. Thanks to modern medicine, childbirth is no longer as dangerous and frightening as it once was, but it still is a grueling and unpredictable physical and emotional experience. Newborns are entirely dependent on their caregivers to survive, and the quality of that care dramatically affects their futures.

But granting new parents some time to recover from birth and usher their children into the world isn’t just a nice thing to do. It makes calculated business sense, by improving productivity and morale and reducing recruitment and training costs. This is why many corporations have established generous maternity-leave policies, to attract and keep their best workers. (The Forward’s maternity leave policy includes two months of short-term disability and up to three months unpaid leave afterward.)

The record of Jewish communal organizations is not egregious when compared to the national picture, but that is hardly cause for complacency. The social service, advocacy, religious and educational institutions that make up the Jewish communal world often attract employees willing to give up some of the pay and perks of the private sector for the opportunity to work on behalf of their communities and in accordance with their values.

And if those organizations wish to draw in the brightest lights in the future, then creating a family-friendly workplace is not optional. Younger Americans have a decidedly greater commitment to work-life balance than their parents and grandparents did, and smart employers will learn to use that to good advantage.

Advancing Women Professionals recommends that all Jewish organizations aspire to paid maternity leave and that, at the very least, they comply with the standards set by the FMLA, whether they are legally required to or not. This is a reasonable and achievable goal, even in today’s unforgiving economy. Supporting Jewish continuity shouldn’t be an empty slogan but rather a wise and humane way to conduct our communal business.

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