The Jewish Community Must Lead on Parental Leave

As a community, we need to step forward to say that we value our employees and their families and want our organizations to reflect those values.

PPL_baby_hi-resBy Amanda Abrams, Rabbi Loren Filson Lapidus, Meredith Lefkoff, Rabbi Lydia Medwin, and Rachel Wasserman, on behalf of an action group of Atlanta Jewish communal professionals who are also mothers of young children

A woman working in a Jewish organization discovers that she is pregnant. “B’shaah tovah” (may it happen in a good hour) she hears from her colleagues, her supervisors, her board members, her donors, her clients. For all of the enthusiastic good wishes this woman may receive, what she is most likely not going to hear is that she will be granted a paid maternity leave.

The United States is the only industrialized nation without guaranteed paid parental leave, which provides emotional and physical health benefits including longer breastfeeding time, with health benefits to both mother and baby, and greater bonding between parents and children. Paid parental leave also provides economic benefits to companies. As “Business Insider” reported on August 5, 2015, “without the guarantee of paid leave, many new parents are faced with the choice between economic hardship and returning to work prematurely.” Paid parental leave provides benefits to parents, children, society, and companies. While we see headlines about companies such as Netflix and Google offering generous paid parental leave policies, the reality is that in both the for-profit and nonprofit sector, most are not offering significant paid parental leave, instead forcing employees to rely on FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act, which stipulates provisions for employers with over 50 employees and does not provide paid leave), disability, and accrued vacation and personal days.

Companies who have instituted these policies have seen economic benefit. According to the Business Insider article, “the rate at which new moms left Google fell by 50% when in 2007 it increased paid maternity leave from 12 weeks to 18 weeks. ‘Mothers were able to take the time they needed to bond with their babies and return to their jobs feeling confident and ready … it’s much better for Google’s bottom line – to avoid costly turnover, and to retain the valued expertise, skills, and perspective of our employees who are mothers.’” Unfortunately, only 12% of American companies currently offer paid leave, which is a decrease from 17% in 2010.

In the Jewish community this is no different as very few organizations offer what is considered the “gold standard” of three months paid maternity leave. A study conducted by Advancing Women Professionals, an advocacy organization which initiated much of the conversation in the Jewish community around this issue, showed that in 2008, only 35% of Jewish organizations offered any kind of paid parental leave, and only 7% provided twelve weeks or more. A recent eJewish Philanthropy article celebrated 100 organizations who have signed onto AWP’s ‘Better Work, Better Life’ campaign for paid parental leave and flexible work policies, indicating that they are offering some kind of paid parental leave, even if it falls short of the recommended three months. Of the 100 organizations, none is Atlanta-based. Some progress has been made, yet much more is still ahead.

Here in Atlanta, a group of women working as Jewish professionals and clergy have gathered as an action group to raise this question for our community. Some of us are fortunate to have some paid leave, ranging from six to twelve weeks, as a result of intentional conversations with our organizations and synagogues. Yet it would probably surprise many in the Atlanta Jewish community to discover that most Jewish professionals must take some, if not all, of their maternity or paternity leave without pay.

Judaism has always put a focus on family – we celebrate our children and seek to promote shalom bayit, peace in the home. We keenly understand the need for refuah, healing, both of the body and mind, and appreciate the sacred nature of time and precious lifecycle moments. Our values, unfortunately, have yet to translate into consistent policies for our Jewish professionals. It comes at a cost: much like the for-profit sector, organizations are less able to attract and retain talented women, with their ideas, enthusiasm, and loyalty which are so desperately needed at this moment in Jewish history. Jewish organizations have taken the long view on initiatives like Jewish education, financial development, and trips to Israel, trusting that we will see the return in the months and years that follow. Certainly, it is time now to get creative and figure out ways to invest in the people that make many of those things possible.

As a community, we need to step forward to say that we value our employees and their families and want our organizations to reflect those values. Change will not come unless lay leaders and professionals are both advocating for supportive policies.

So, we simply invite you to consider one question: For the institutions you affiliate with and support, do you know what their parental leave policy is?

This op-ed was originally published in Atlanta Jewish Times