Family-friendly policies in the Jewish community
I read Gabrielle Birkner's article in the Forward on the shameful lack of family-friendly policies in most Jewish organizations with disappointment, but not surprise. It's one of the well-known but rarely articulated -- except by whispering mothers, trying to figure out how to manage their jobs and pregnancies -- secrets of the Jewish community.
Part of the problem is that we who live in the US have come to expect very little in the way of benefits. When I heard from my in-laws in Canada about the year-long parental leave benefits there, I nearly fell out of my chair. And don't even talk to me about Europe. The standard here is absurdly low. In this (as in many other social policies), the US is behind much of the developed world.
But the Jewish community should be a different story, right? First of all, we are a tradition that honors the family above almost all else. We also have a long history of laws protecting workers and ensuring justice in employment relationships. Ultimately, it seems obvious to me, the bottom line for a Jewish organization should be values, not money.
This problem is particularly dire because women comprise the majority of employees at most Jewish institutions. But despite this fact that women are vital contributors to the Jewish communal infrastructure, there still remains a) a lack of investment in creating sustainable positions for female employees, and b) a classist, sexist, and economically outdated assumption that women's work is not essential to family finances, that women are supported by someone else who earns a big enough income that she can afford to take off unpaid time after giving birth.
I am lucky to work for an organization that tries to live its values and that has developed a relatively generous parental leave policy -- 8 weeks paid with the possibility of up to 4 additional paid weeks based on accrued vacation and sick time, for both women and men. That puts us among the best mentioned in the (New York-centric) Forward article. But it took a difficult process of staff, managers, and board working together to figure out what felt comfortable and viable, ethically and financially.
About five years ago, when our staff was expanding rapidly and for the first time included several women of childbearing age, a revision of the personnel policy was undertaken. The first draft presented to the staff included a pretty major reduction of the maternity leave. But staff protested, empowered by the experience of working in a collegial atmosphere in which our voices are respected and heard. We pointed out that as a feminist organization, we have the responsibility to be leaders in promoting an ethical, family-friendly policy, rather than accommodating ourselves to the very low bar set by the rest of the Jewish organizational world. We formed a benefits committee made up of staff, management, and board, and we researched the policies of similarly-sized organizations with similar values in both the Jewish and non-Jewish not-for-profit world. We considered the needs of single people and couples, women and men, families growing through birth and through adoption. We considered how to balance the cost of parental leave and other benefits in our package (such as health insurance). Together we came up with a proposal to resubmit to the board, who approved it.
I'm not arguing that our policy is perfect, or that it ensures that being a working mother is tension free. The process of balancing my responsibilities as a parent and as a worker is a challenging one, and I think it's just as challenging (minus sleep deprivation, of course) for an organization and its leaders to figure out how to be family friendly in theory and in practice, how to relate to its employees as workers and as people with lives and demands outside of the office. Conflicts and tensions are bound to keep coming up as new circumstances arise.
But, as with many things, it's all about the process: allowing open communication about these issues, including a wide spectrum of voices in the decision making, and checking in with policies on a regular basis to make sure that they continue to meet the needs of, and the values of, the organization and the people who make it run. The current economic climate does not make this situation any easier for organizations or for individuals, both of whom are often struggling to make ends meet. But the financial crisis reminds us of the real legacy that we carry forward as Jews -- not our wealth, but our ethics.