Jewish Organizations Must Address the Pandemic Parenting Gender Gap

By Rabbi Hara Person and Rabbi Mary Zamore

Picture this: A dual-career family, the rabbi and her husband are self-isolated with their three young children who are supposed to be learning remotely. Their au pair returned to Europe, a new one is not available. Last week the back-up babysitter was exposed to the COVID-19 virus and is now in quarantine. The rabbi is trying her best to juggle the urgent needs of her home and her synagogue, but she is ready to give up.

As the COVID-19 pandemic alters our work and lives, many parents are reaching their breaking point. In the Jewish community, the situation is no different – many rabbis are speaking out loudly and candidly about the pressures of pandemic parenting. While everyone is facing unique pandemic struggles, for many parents the un-ending challenges due to the lack of paid childcare and in-person school leave parents stepping into the unfamiliar roles of full-time caregiver and teacher, creating an unsustainable situation, especially for mothers. As we enter this “new normal,” some parents are being forced to choose between their children and their jobs. The level of distress that this is causing our female colleagues with young children is alarming.

As is often the case when it comes to parenting, the negative impact of the pandemic is being shouldered disproportionately by women, who take on an outsize amount of parental and emotional labor at home, as well as the upkeep of the home itself each day. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) women are still performing 76.2% of total hours of unpaid care work, more than three times as much as men. On top of that, women are on the frontline of the pandemic, working as primary caregivers, service industry workers, and healthcare workers, yet we’re still paid a fraction of what men in those exact positions are making. We cannot allow this pandemic to force women back to the 1950s ideal of domesticity – in which women were expected to single-handedly hold down the homefront, despite the personal and professional costs.

Jewish leaders have an obligation to ensure that these trends of gender inequity and disregard for women’s wellbeing do not consume the professional staff who keep our communities running. As synagogues and Jewish communal institutions are figuring out how to survive during the pandemic, we need to ensure that the burden is shared equitably, and that our institutions can model the kind of compassion toward its staff that is expected from them.

Over the last several years, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the Women’s Rabbinic Network (WRN), and Women for Reform Judaism (WRJ) have developed strategies to address gender inequity and other issues affecting women in the Jewish world, including through the CCAR’s Task Force on Women in the Rabbinate and the Reform Pay Equity Initiative. The pandemic is not an excuse to delay or put aside those efforts; we need to continue moving forward, even when it seems like we are up against insurmountable challenges, and despite how far we still have to go.

Parents, in general, are struggling to manage working from home while also raising and educating children full-time. And women, in particular, are struggling and indeed are in distress. In this moment, Jewish institutions must establish clear and actionable policies to better support employees, in particular caregivers, during this pandemic. We need to operate with compassion and care for our communities as a whole, including ethical decision making around major choices for furloughs and pay cuts, and what a workday looks like.

Women and mothers have different needs that must be recognized and addressed by Jewish institutions, now more than ever. For example, the pandemic has created an increased need for flexibility as parents are required to work from home. With many women taking primary responsibility for childcare and other unpaid home responsibilities, we must be flexible with their hours and act with understanding for interruptions by children, lack of sleep, and challenges with scheduling. Respecting women’s work boundaries is also essential, as women are more likely to say yes to extra work, even if they have vital personal commitments during the pandemic. Without these policies, the result is that our workplaces will systematically deprive women of professional advancement and success. And in the case of heteronormative family structures, the men have to step up and be part of the solution.

In order to live out our Jewish value of the equality of all people, gender equity must be a priority and not just a luxury to strive for only when times are good. By implementing these policies, we can ensure that the momentum for gender equity in Jewish institutions is not lost and instead amplified at this time of great need. Together, we can make the vision of a more equitable, just, and diverse Jewish community into a reality.

Rabbi Hara Person is the chief executive for the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the publisher of CCAR Press. Rabbi Person also leads CCAR’s Task Force on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate, helping to advance the cause of gender equity within the Reform Movement and addressing the unique challenges of women rabbis.

Rabbi Mary Zamore is the executive director of Women’s Rabbinic Network, supporting and advocating for Reform women rabbis through issues such as pay equity, safe workspace and the advancement of women in Jewish leadership.