Living Our Values

by Rabbi Charles Feinberg and Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg

We and a group of other rabbis recently spent several months poring over the details of a holy text. This was not the Talmud, but rather the new employment policies of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. This may not sound like a religious activity. We recognized, though, that our employment policies are a statement of our values as a Jewish human rights organization. We also understood that we, who have been entrusted with funds donated by our community, must act as responsible stewards of these financial resources.

As Jews and rabbis, we began with the belief that every human being is a creation in God’s image. We looked, as well, to Jewish labor laws, many of which seek to protect the employee from exploitation at the hands of his or her employer. Our Jewish commitment to family and community compelled us to allow staff members the space to spend time with their families, and to build a rich spiritual and communal life.

As a human rights organization, we work toward a world in which every single person enjoys the rights laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These rights include freedom from discrimination, “just and favorable conditions of work,” “remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity,” and “the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitations of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.” We cannot fight for these rights for others without ensuring the same standard for our own employees.

Our commitment to treating every human being as a manifestation of the divine led us first to set clear guidelines prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, sex, age, gender identity or expression, national origin, sexual orientation, familial status, or physical disability.

But it is not enough simply to state that we do not discriminate. We also concretized these guidelines by implementing specific policies to counter some of the most common areas of discrimination. We specified that we do not distinguish between same-sex partners and partners of the opposite sex when it comes to health insurance, bereavement leave, family medical leave, parental leave, or any other benefits. We called our health insurance company to ensure that they will not deny certain benefits to transgender people, as too often happens. As a Jewish organization, we close on all Jewish holidays, as well as federal holidays including Christmas. To ensure equal benefits for members of other religious groups, we made allowances for employees to take off other religious holidays.

Though many other non-profits have cut retirement benefits, we renewed our commitment to contributing to employee retirement funds, regardless of whether the employee contributes as well. The rabbis taught us that “the elderly uphold the people of Israel … for whoever seeks counsel with the aged will not stumble” (Midrash Exodus Rabbah 3:8). The financial crisis of the past few years has demonstrated the disastrous effect on personal and societal health when senior citizens find themselves without any retirement savings, and when people of retirement age must continue to work. In the long-term, we worry about the burden on our children of caring for a generation of retirees – including career Jewish communal leaders – without adequate retirement benefits.

The question that occupied the bulk of our time concerned parental leave. On the one hand, we aspired to the “gold standard,” as articulated by the advocacy group Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community. This standard recommends twelve weeks of paid leave, which may be tied to tenure; equal benefits for both parents; pro-rated benefits for part-time employees; and a formal flexibility policy. As a Jewish organization, we are committed to enabling our staff members to have children and to spend time with their children. As human rights organization, we could not fight for the health and welfare of parents and children without protecting these rights for our own employees.

But as a small organization, we worried that we could not afford to pay for parental leave replacements, or potentially to have several staff members on leave at the same time. We ultimately realized, however, that we could not afford not to institute strong parental leave policies. We are lucky to have many talented staff members in their twenties and thirties, and do not want to risk losing these employees by making them choose between work and family. A number of studies have demonstrated that companies that offer paid parental leave are more likely to retain women after childbirth.

We therefore instituted a policy that allows up to twelve weeks of parental leave. For employees who have worked for RHR-NA for three years or more, all twelve of these weeks are paid. Employees who have been with us for two years receive eight weeks paid, and those who have worked for RHR-NA [for one year] receive four weeks of paid leave. Through this tiered structure, we protect ourselves financially if a short-term employee quits after his or her parental leave; we also offer incentives for employees to stay with RHR-NA for a longer tenure. Because we recognize that people create families in many ways, we offer the same leave to men and women, and to biological, adoptive, and foster parents.

We do not mean to suggest that our employment practices are perfect. No doubt, we will need to make tweaks along the way as we learn how these practices play out in organizational life. Nor do we believe that there is a one-size-fits-all answer to the challenge of crafting policies that reflect Jewish values while responsibly stewarding organizational resources. Rather, we share our own experience because we know that many other Jewish organizations similarly struggle with creating just and sustainable employment practices. We hope that a public discussion of how and why we make choices regarding employment policies will help to move the entire Jewish community in a positive direction. We hope that board members and staff of other organizations will share their own experiences in balancing values and financial stewardship. We look forward to the conversation.

Rabbis Charles Feinberg and Rachel Goldenberg are the co-chairs of Rabbis for Human Rights- North America.