Paid Maternity Leave Should be a Right, Not a Privilege

Oh to be a working mother in Israel, where women who give birth will soon get 14 weeks of paid maternity leave. Fourteen weeks? I’d have been happy to get 14 days of paid leave in this country.

In Jane Eisner’s Forward editorial this week, she writes about Israel’s move to extend legally mandated maternity leave benefits. She also writes about the dismal reality among American Jewish organizations, as recently documented by Advancing Women Professionals.

In the editorial, Jane writes about Mechon Hadar, an egalitarian yeshiva on the Upper West Side whose chair, Ariela Dubler, made instituting paid parental leave a priority. I loudly applaud Hadar’s policy giving four weeks of paid maternity leave for each year of employment, up to 16 weeks.

If someone were to take four months of paid parental leave it would be a fiscal challenge for the small organization. This is an argument long used by businesses and not-for-profits to justify not providing paid parental leave, as it was in the early 1990s, when the federal Family and Medical Leave Act was being debated. Pregnant with my first child at the time, I clearly remember the debate – and the eloquent rhetoric in favor of FMLA from leaders of several Jewish organizations even as they had no family leave provision in their own company’s rules, which I documented in an article for JTA (which is unfortunately not available online).

But Ms. Dubler, a law professor at Columbia University, is quoted in the editorial as saying Mechon Hadar is “balancing generosity and risk.”

Therein lies part of the problem. Having a paid parental leave policy is viewed as “generosity,” as a gift, as something “extra,” or “over and above.”

It should not be.

Significant paid parental leave should be regarded as fundamental to the benefits policy of any Jewish organization. (Any organization, for-profit or not-, in fact).

It should be regarded as integral a part of the benefits as the chief executive’s weeks of paid vacation.

Not providing paid maternity leave is, in effect, a bias against women who give birth and are forced to either return very quickly to work, which is inhumane, or to struggle financially in order to be home with their child.

It communicates that women who have children are not valued employees and are, in fact, dispensable.

All companies – but here I focus on Jewish organizations – should be treating female employees who are also mothers as if they are valued for what they bring to their job and the firm. It is not only the right thing to do, but should be true, and working mothers should be treated as such.

When you are a mother and work in the Jewish community you see that there is an enormous gulf between rhetoric and reality. “Jewish Continuity” is what every Jewish organization works for, in one way or another. But most give little more than lip service to the reality of what it means.

We have to change the language when we talk about paid maternity leave in order to bring about a paradigm shift.

It should no longer be seen as “generosity” on the part of Jewish organizations, but rather as something to be expected. If this shift is to take place, then the men who lead almost every single major Jewish organization must embrace it as a priority.

I was working for a unionized news organization when I had my first child, 15 years ago. Being part of the union there permitted me two weeks of paid maternity leave and up to six months unpaid. It is a measure of how bad policies are for new mothers in most workplaces that that six months of unpaid leave felt like a luxury because my job was secure.

Like many women continue to do, I scrimped and saved my two weeks of paid annual vacation time so that I could have income for a little more of my maternity leave. I don’t think I took a single vacation day for the two years leading up to the birth of my son. It was a real financial strain to not be paid for several months. Then as now, it takes two people working to be able to support a Jewish family life in New York.

When I had my second and third children, I was working for a different news organization half time. As a part-time employee, I had no paid time off. If a holiday fell or I was sick on a workday, I had to make that time up. With my second birth I think I took off a month of unpaid time. With my third, I took one week off, unable to afford longer than that. My boss generously permitted me to work only from home for several more weeks.

But we should not have to depend on the goodwill of our bosses to be able to recover from the physical and emotional experience of childbirth (or adoption, for that matter) and bond with our babies.

That the State of Israel is extending its mandated paid parental leave is a wonderful step.

Those who lead American Jewish organizations should follow Israel’s example.


Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is an award-winning journalist who covers philanthropy, religion, gender and other contemporary issues. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York magazine, among many other publications. She authored the book “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant.”

Paid Maternity Leave Should be a Right, Not a Privilege

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