My husband and I have an annual tradition. Each year, the night before Kol Nidre, we throw on some sequins and watch The Jazz Singer starring Neil Diamond. It’s a ritual as important to us as bagels & lox for break-fast.
This past Erev Kol Nidre, just as I was getting ready for the movie, a haunting sound filled our home. My husband was howling — a deep, guttural, terrifying noise I had heard once before. I ran downstairs, screaming his name. No response. He quickly came into view — his body tense, twisted and curled into a “C” shape, face contorted with eyes rolled back into his head. He was having a grand mal seizure, his second ever. And though a small part of me was able to process what was happening, my entire being went into panic mode, a billion thoughts entering my brain all at once: It’s a heart attack. No wait, it’s a seizure. No, he’s possessed. He’s dying. I’m losing him. Did we pay our life insurance? His heart rate is skyrocketing. What about his disability policy — did we pay that? He won’t be able to drive again. Oh God, our son is screaming from upstairs. What do I do?
Once the seizing ended, he started to come back to consciousness. He recalled feeling the onset of the seizure and sitting down on the couch to protect his head from injury. He remembered my middle name, our son’s name, our wedding anniversary. As my own heart rate slowed and I caught my breath, dozens of details settled upon me like pieces of dust. Our parents were on their way. Our son hadn’t witnessed this. He hadn’t been behind the wheel of a car. He hadn’t hit his head. He was okay. We were okay.
As our parents arrived, worried but resolute, I felt overwhelming gratitude. My father, a physician, quickly examined my husband. He prattled off more important dates, names of family members — anything to demonstrate that his brain was back to functioning order. My mother went to hold our screaming, terrified son. My father-in-law hurried off to the market to procure Gatorade. How lucky we are, I thought.
But within a millisecond, that gratitude was replaced by an overwhelming sensation; a mix of fear and anger, sadness and memory.
But what about his recovery?
My stomach lurched as I recalled his first seizure six months prior and my own illness following our son’s birth. The tolls they took on us emotionally, financially. The changes they forced upon our lives. I felt dizzy and unstable: will he be able to work? How long will he need to be out? What about his clients? What will this mean for our family?
I had no idea what tomorrow — Yom Kippur, of all days! — would hold for us. All I knew, returning to me like muscle memory, was the fear and anxiety of a health crisis; the specific uncertainty that accompanies an illness and the deep fear that you, your spouse, or your family might not have what you need to return to good health.
Nationally, it is no secret that the American healthcare system is a mess; that Americans are getting sicker and dying younger. It’s well-documented that far too many Americans with health insurance cannot afford to pay their medical bills.
Our country boasts extraordinary centers of health and brilliant, world-class doctors. We have some of the best minds on the planet involved in our arena of medicine. But there is one thing absent from the very fabric of America that’s become an enormous, make-or-break, life-or-death issue for my family and millions of others, and it’s time we in the Jewish community took it seriously:
Before I became a parent, it never once registered that “paid leave” was about so much more than new parenthood.
Not long after my own hard-won paid maternity leave, I did my homework and learned how fortunate I was. I learned that only 14% of American civilians have access to paid family leave. I learned that the United States is the only industrialized country on the planet without a paid leave policy, either for new parents or those facing a medical crisis. I learned that one in four American women goes back to work less than two weeks after having a baby. And I learned that doctors, nurses, health advocates and social scientists, on average, recommend a minimum six months paid leave for each parent following the birth or adoption of a child.
Many Americans simply do not understand what paid leave is. In the broadest terms, a paid leave policy allows employees to continue earning their pay while taking time away from work to address a serious health condition (including pregnancy) or caring for a new child or family member with a serious health condition. Only a handful of states have established or are in the process of implementing their own paid leave policies, though the specifics are often complicated and hard to decipher.
Paid leave seems like a no-brainer, yet confusion around paid leave is limitless. We use terms like maternity leave, paternity leave and parental leave without fully understanding what they mean or asking whether we’ll continue to earn pay. As employers, we fear the high costs of paid leave, arguing it makes no sense to pay someone a salary when they’re not working. We cite the United States’ FMLA policy as proof that there is something out there for new parents without recognizing its “unpaid” status forces women and men to return to work far sooner than is medically recommended, thereby raising our maternal and infant mortality rate (A rate that is shockingly, unacceptably higher for women of color). And as a society so uncomfortable engaging with death, we are equally as evasive when it comes to the logistical, financial and emotional challenges of dealing with health crises; we’re eager to tell employees “you’ll beat this!” while avoiding practical conversations around reduction of hours or workplace accommodations.
Paid leave is an idea whose moment is long overdue.
My own involvement with paid leave advocacy was originally motivated by my journey through postpartum depression, something I’ve shared publicly, including this piece featured in The Forward nearly two years ago. Though the first few months of our son’s life were awful, I had twelve weeks of fully paid leave during which I could recover. Twelve weeks without additional anxiety from being down one salary. Twelve weeks free from the pressure of returning to work before I was ready. Twelve weeks during which I was able to return to myself in order to return to the job I loved.
Then came the deja-vu aftermath of my husband’s first seizure: doctor’s appointments, tests and scans, endless conversations, suggestions, guidance, recommendations. The similarities to my own experience were eerie. Yet there was one big difference: my husband, once initially cleared by his doctors, was still expected to work at full capacity. Still expected to produce. Still expected to show up at the office and do what he’d been hired to do. There would be no paid leave for him; no time to slow down, focus on getting healthy or prioritize his continued (and numerous) health appointments.
But he couldn’t do it all. No human can. How can you possibly expect a person to balance a full workload with MRIs and EEGs, neurologist visits, DMV hearings and countless appointments, each of which has to happen during normal working hours? It’s impossible — and yet our country, our employers, our overworked, overstressed culture still refuses to prioritize paid leave or recognize how absolutely critical it is to the economical, emotional and physical well-being of our nation.
The logistics of a health crisis are often complicated; they disrupt your life, your routine, your whole approach to the day-to-day. But the emotional burden of a health crisis is enormous. The toll it took on my husband — the most steady, solid, hardworking and optimistic man you could ever hope to meet — broke my heart. Our experience put a huge amount of pressure on him and stress on our marriage. But it also gave us new perspectives on paid leave: it has no boundaries. It’s not just about new parenthood. Any human of any age or gender could find themselves in the same boat as us.
As difficult as it’s been to face two health crises in two years, we know how fortunate we are. We have excellent health insurance and access to great care. We have an incredible family and loyal, loving friends who continue to lift us up and carry us through whatever life throws as us. My husband, thank God, is physically fine — back at work, now on medication we pray will keep him healthy. However, once again, he’s unable to drive for the foreseeable future, so our “village” has stepped up in extraordinary ways — driving our son to and from school, sending us Uber and Lyft gift cards each day, stuffing our fridge and bellies with food, praying for us, loving us through a difficult time. My husband and I also each have fantastic new jobs at organizations that treat us as full, dynamic people; employers who have already shown more compassion and support than we thought possible from those for whom we work.
How different it is for far too many.
Paid leave — for Americans, for Jews, for every single one of us — is neither some obscure concept nor unattainable goal. Truly, if just about every other country in the world has figured this out then so can we. But first we must face some hard truths about who we are and how we live; we must acknowledge that our overall approach to human health - from birth to death - is badly in need of realignment. Throughout our nation, in red states and blue, in progressive and conservative communities alike, we are so very, very deficient at how we accompany individuals and families through life’s journey. From celebrating the birth of children but refusing to acknowledge just how damn hard it can be to celebrating employees donating sick days to coworkers rather than establishing a sensible, affordable company-wide paid leave policy — my God, we have so much work to do.
As Jews, we read in our sacred texts that pikuach nefesh, the saving of a life, supersedes all other commandments; it assures us of our moral obligation to pursue life at any cost.
It’s a no-brainer in situations of emergency. But it requires far more nuance and dedication to work pikuach nefesh into our day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year routines.
It is time for the Jewish community to see paid leave as an act of pikuach nefesh; to prioritize the health and well-being of congregants, community members, constituents and employees in this critical, concrete way.
In the absence of a federal paid leave policy, we in the Jewish community must take the lead by pushing ourselves, our organizations and institutions to do better — so much better — when it comes to caring for the human beings who make our worlds turn: staff, lay leadership, congregants and constituents.
We must use our relationships, our pulpits and platforms to push those in positions of power to take this issue seriously, advocating on behalf of individuals and families of all ages and backgrounds who deserve substantive paid leave policies.
And we who make up the American Jewish community must reconsider not just the salaries and benefits we offer those who staff and lead our institutions (a well-researched issue of significance to our Jewish organizations), but also the messages we share, programs we promote and cultures we shape within and beyond our Jewish communal gathering spaces.
In doing so, we reinforce that inextricable connection between our collective health and our collective future.
And if we don’t, what will become of our communities?
We must do our homework, educating ourselves on ongoing local and national conversations around paid leave. Next month, our Midterm elections will give many of us the chance to engage, speak up and support candidates, proposals and propositions that highlight the importance of paid leave. In California, Katie Porter is a single mother running for congress on a platform that prominently features paid family leave. In Colorado, gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis) is a Jewish, gay father who champions paid leave throughout his policy agenda. In Washington, State Senator Joe Fain is the Republican co-sponsor of a statewide paid leave bill that became law in 2017; he speaks frequently on the importance of paid family leave as a bipartisan issue that’s good for families and good for business.
Finally, the extraordinary team at PL+US Action recently presented their endorsements of paid leave champions. Their indispensable resources can help individuals and businesses alike establish affordable paid leave policies where employers and employees both win, including those who serve, staff and lead non-profit organizations.
We Americans can no longer ignore the significance of paid leave; for the health of our nation, our families and ourselves, the time is now. My family’s story is just one of countless others that illustrate why this issue is so important, relevant and painfully urgent. So let us amplify those stories, humanize this issue and expand our impact; let us prioritize the health of our children, adults and communities by supporting paid leave policies. Let us work together — employers and employees, rabbis and congregants, voters and candidates, all humans, all mortal, all deserving of good health — to care for each and every soul in our midst.
As our tradition teaches, “they who have saved a life, it is as if they have saved the entire world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)
Let’s do our part to save the world.
Correction, October 5, 10:36 a.m.: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that PL+US Paid Leave Advocacy had endorsed pro-leave candidates. In fact, it is PL+US Action that has done so.”
This story "We All Need Paid Leave – Not Just Maternity Leave" was written by Jaclyn Cohen.