Real Family Values


Published December 16, 2009, issue of December 25, 2009.
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It is not yet the law of the land, but legislation to extend Israel’s national maternity-leave policy is well on its way to approval. Earlier this month, the Knesset voted overwhelmingly to grant new mothers six months unpaid leave — the first 14 weeks of which are paid.

Even supporters of this legislation concede that it doesn’t offer much when compared to the generous family-leave policies in European countries. But compared to American practices, and particularly those in the Jewish community? No contest. A massive study conducted by the organization Advancing Women Professionals, released in September, found that only 35% of Jewish communal organizations have paid maternity-leave policies, and just over half offer time off without pay.

“A healthy society is one that sends the message that family and motherhood are part of its fundamental values,” said Tzipi Hotovely, the Likud Knesset member who co-sponsored the bill.

Let’s stay with the values theme for a moment, because ultimately that is where too many Jewish communal organizations in this country come up short. We can stipulate that it is difficult for any organization to pay an employee for not working, especially in this unforgiving economy, especially in workplaces with few employees, as is true of many in the Jewish world. But for some, the difficulty and risk are overridden by the commitment to values.

Mechon Hadar provides an example. It calls itself an institute for “prayer, personal growth and Jewish study” and boasts the first full-time, egalitarian yeshiva in North America. When Ariela Dubler became chair of Mechon Hadar’s board about a year ago, the young institution on Manhattan’s Upper West Side was still developing its operational policies. Given her passion for the subject — Dubler is a professor of family law at Columbia University and a mother of three children — crafting a family-leave policy was a top priority.

“If we are a Jewish organization committed to community and social justice, to practicing Torah and not just teaching text, then parental leave must be a key component of who we are,” Dubler said. “For us, it is about living the mission of the organization.”

So Dubler and her board decided on a policy, offering four weeks paid leave per year of employment, up to 16 weeks, for a birth or adoption, to both men and women. While no one on the eight-person staff has so far requested the leave, Dubler said she knows that it may one day hit the budget’s bottom line, hard, and that may entail other sacrifices. Mechon Hadar is, she said, “balancing generosity and risk.”

It is risky to take a singular step like this, a high-wire act with little assurance that a slip will be caught below. America is only one of two industrialized nations without paid maternity leave and the Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, applies only to large organizations. So there is no national framework for action.

But it can be done, and it is being done. AWP is compiling a list of Jewish organizations with family leave policies, and the number is gradually increasing. In a comment posted on the Forward’s Web site, Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim Congregation in Virginia offered another example of how policies can speak to values:

“Our Hazzan just completed her fourth three-month maternity leave (full pay and benefits) in her ten years at our shul. In the early months of her return to work each of the four times, her baby came to work with her. I think it was the least we could do.

“Did her absence and the needs of the babies create a temporary shift in workloads and priorities for the rest of us in the office? Yes. But so what? We are denizens of the village and these four wonderful Jewish children (and their parents) are part of our responsibility.”

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