How synagogues can truly welcome new rabbis and staff this month

No one would be surprised to hear that the days around the High Holidays in the fall are among a synagogue’s most important, or that Purim, Passover and Hanukkah matter in the life of a congregation. But there may be no day more meaningful to synagogues than July 1.

Why July 1? Because across the country, July 1 is the first day of work for rabbis, cantors and other Jewish professionals joining new congregations. 

Synagogues devote significant time and energy to making sure their new clergy and staffs are welcomed and set up for professional success. I want to suggest one additional thing congregations can do to allow their new rabbis to be the type of leaders they need: Adopt a clear family and medical leave policy.

We need to move beyond a time when Jewish professionals (and, in fact, all employees) who are growing their families or facing a medical challenge must summon the courage to inform their employers and initiate a discussion — or worse, a negotiation — to secure defined paid leave. In the absence of a clearly defined leave policy, ad hoc implementation does not allow employees or institutions to plan effectively, equitably or appropriately. 

Illustrative. maxbelchenko/Adobe Stock

As rabbis, we understand our roles as moral leaders, modeling and shaping communities rooted in justice, compassion and care. As employees, we understand that our religious institutions cannot claim moral leadership if we do not provide high-quality paid family and medical leave to everyone who works under our roofs. And as women and nonbinary people, members of the Women’s Rabbinic Network understand that paid leave is essential for gender equity in our families, communities and country.

The United States is the only industrialized country in the world without a national paid family and medical leave program. The only one. Even where law guarantees employee rights, it often does not apply to synagogues, churches, mosques, temples and other religious organizations. We are not required to provide paid leave, but we can and we should. Doing so would set a moral and practical example, demonstrating that organizations of all kinds and sizes stand to gain when we voluntarily implement these programs.

Research consistently shows the benefits for parents, children and employers when institutions provide clearly written, high-quality paid family and medical leave policies and practices to all employees, including during the recruiting and hiring process. These benefits include reduced mortality rates for moms, birthing parents and babies; better health and well-being for children and parents; and improved job satisfaction, loyalty, retention and performance.

Illustrative. dusanpetkovic1/Adobe Stock

Paid leave policies have also been shown to have a significant positive impact on organizations. Among myriad benefits, research shows they can reduce costs, reinforce company values and maintain institutional knowledge, improve worker morale and productivity, attract new talent, increase worker retention and reduce gender pay disparities.

Job seekers should not be alone in negotiating paid leave, and individual congregations and Jewish organizations should not be forced to reinvent the wheel. Bringing in expert support and consultation to create policies and aligned practices can be burdensome for religious institutions, especially for smaller organizations. Recognizing this, the WRN has partnered with the Center for Parental Leave Leadership, the only full-service consulting and coaching company to focus exclusively on leave, to develop WRN’s Family and Medical Leave: Policy Standards for the Jewish Community. This paid leave tool kit features a comprehensive set of resources, including template policy language that can be used in employee handbooks and contracts, educational videos, a discussion guide for context and ideas and internal research to support organizations in having these critical conversations.

Our WRN standard sets a minimum floor for all congregational and other employers in the Jewish community to provide no fewer than 12 weeks of family and medical leave at 100% pay to all employees regardless of gender, job role, length of employment or type of family leave needed.

Paid family and medical leave should be a right guaranteed under federal law without exemption, but there is no reason to wait while we — and millions of people from all faith backgrounds across the country — advocate for change. Synagogues can and should go beyond the requirements of federal law and ensure that all employees have access to high-quality paid family and medical leave. Congregations may be exempt from some federal laws, but we are not exempt from our responsibilities for the long-term sustainability of our organizations, nor from our moral imperatives. As our new rabbis take their new pulpits, let’s make sure we treat them – and all employees – with the respect they deserve and we all need. 

Rabbi Mary Zamore is executive director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network.