Parental Leave is Worth the Sacrifice

Photo courtesy the author

By Rabbi Avi Killip

Ten years ago, when Hadar had only five full-time staff, the board approved a parental leave plan that offered employees of any gender a month of paid leave for every year they had worked at the organization, up to four months. The move, championed by our founding board chair Ariela Dubler, was inspired by the campaign run by Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community. Hadar’s policy reflected their “Gold Standard” as an exceptionally strong policy for a Jewish organization.

Having babies entails sacrifice. In the five years I’ve worked at Hadar, faculty and staff have given birth to ten babies with another two due before summer. At one point, four of twenty-two staff members took parental leave in the same year. I took leaves from Hadar after the birth of each of my youngest two children. In both cases everyone was supportive, and in both cases it was hard – both on me and on the organization.

It is hard for a small organization to have staff disappear for long stretches, sometimes during extremely busy times. In fact, people have come to expect that small Jewish organizations have little-to-no paid parental leave. Many seem genuinely shocked when I tell them about Hadar’s leave policy, asking: “But, how is that possible? How can a small staff manage with all these absences?”

This policy is a real cost to Hadar, both in money (sometimes hiring additional part-time staff to cover certain roles) and in time of existing staff stretching to cover. Indeed, the organization was almost certainly not as efficient that particular year because of the confluence of the many parental leaves.

We don’t have a magic pill that makes this work for us, but with so many new-parents on staff, we have found that there are also benefits to making parental leave a priority. First and most importantly: The strong leave policy has helped us build a baby-positive culture by putting our stake in the ground. When the executives model a joy and excitement upon hearing about a pregnancy, that sets the tone for staff culture. Second, the parental leaves have helped foster a team mentality. When we cover for our colleagues, we have a deeper understanding of and appreciation for each other’s jobs. Finally, different families have different needs. Hadar has been exceptionally flexible with individual requests, working with each person to make a plan that works for them. This helps tremendously with employee happiness and retention, and extends to a culture of flexibility that allows people to prioritize other family-life needs, even beyond parental leave.

While these benefits are real, and have made Hadar stronger organizationally, they will never outweigh the sacrifice from the perspective of the work. It is hard for a small nonprofit to lose an employee for so much time, and often hard on the parent too. The “guilt” of knowing that your colleagues are working to cover for you can be real (especially when those colleagues don’t have kids of their own). It is hard not to feel as though you have shirked a responsibility or let down your team.

There is nothing quite like the weeks after childbirth. Reemerging after giving birth is a three step process described in Leviticus chapter 12: The first week or two is one experience (a time of impurity), and the weeks after that are a second, different kind of space (days of purification). These opening verses of Parshat Tazriah never particularly spoke to me until I read them through the lens of parental leave. While purity laws no longer dictate our lives, this way of dividing time sounds a lot like my lived experience. The first weeks at home with a new baby felt “unclean” in pretty much every way possible. And the weeks after that initial shock were an in between time when I could focus on finding time to reincorporate showers, get dressed, and maybe even go for a walk outside.

Finally, the biblical woman marks the end of her postpartum time by bringing a public sacrifice. This particular sacrifice is a sin offering, which has mystified rabbinic commentators for generations as they wonder: “What is this woman guilty of?” I have started to think of this sacrifice as the toll taken by the time away from both work and self care, and speaking personally the guilt feels completely relatable. To be clear, nobody should feel guilty for having a baby, and Hadar actively tries to work against this feeling. The burden of this sacrifice should be shared by society through taxes that support paid leave, as is true for many countries abroad. But that is not our reality in the United States, and many new parents carry guilt – first about being at home, and then about heading back to work.

Hadar’s board enacted our exceptionally strong parental leave policy knowing the sacrifice. They understand that our work depends on it. Hadar is driven by a vision of the world we seek to build for the next generation. All of the Torah we teach and every program we run is in service of that vision. Our vision would be meaningless without directly fostering the next generation of our staff and faculty. I know that this vision and determination to work for our children is not unique to Hadar. Most, if not all, Jewish organizations share this commitment to our future generations. The opportunity to work for a Jewish organization should not be at odds with the chance to take several months of paid maternity leave. We do not ignore or deny the sacrifice required. Parental leave is complicated, expensive, and absolutely necessary if we stand by our vision and our mission. Every Jewish organization should provide paid parental leave. It is worth the sacrifice.

Rabbi Avi Killip is VP of Strategy and Programs at Hadar Institute.