The Jewish Community’s Responsibility to Working Families

The Jewish community should hold itself to a higher standard when it comes to family-friendly policies.

by Rachel Wasserman

A recent article in the Huffington Post sparked an impassioned discussion amongst my friends. The article, “Why Sick Kids Should be Allowed at Daycare,” was written by a pediatrician who asserted that children are too often sent home from daycare for exhibiting symptoms of illness that do not actually warrant either a visit to the doctor or a day home from school. The piece ends by mentioning the need to change the culture of daycare in order to support working families. The subsequent discussion was dominated by full-time working Jewish mothers – myself included – venting about the lack of flexible childcare arrangements in our community. Lately, it seems as though wherever I go, similar topics of conversations arise – flexibility of work schedules, affordability of Jewish childcare, school schedules that accommodate working parents’ needs – the list goes on. Perhaps it all boils down to one key question: what responsibility do our Jewish institutions have toward working parents (and our children)? I would argue that it would behoove our Jewish organizations to pay closer attention to the needs of these families and take steps to change policies where possible.

(As an important aside, I believe our institutions have a particular responsibility to Jewish communal workers, especially in the areas of affordable, year-round childcare, flexible work arrangements, and paid parental leave, but that is a subject for a future article.)

Anyone watching the news knows that these issues are not unique to the Jewish community. America has an abysmal track record for paid parental leave, workplace flexibility, and equal pay for equal work. Last week, the White House hosted a Summit on Working Families to tackle these concerns, among many others. While this is a promising development, change on a national level will be undoubtedly slow and be burdened by bureaucratic red tape. This is one reason why I challenge our Jewish institutions to take the lead and pave the way for others to follow. Wouldn’t it be amazing if change on a local level could trigger broader reform, little by little? The Jewish community should hold itself to a higher standard when it comes to family-friendly policies. We so often tout the values of tzedek tzedek tirdof and derech eretz, but are we truly living them? How can we be a “light unto the nations” if we don’t take care of our own people?

Furthermore, as our community faces the ever-growing “day school tuition crisis,” what are we doing to make it easier for parents to work, thereby allowing them to afford the rising tuition costs and avoid burdening the schools for more financial aid? At the same time schools bemoan the fact that 50, 60, 70+ percent of their families are on financial aid, they limit parents’ abilities to work full-time by maintaining practices that have been in place for many decades and do not take into account the rising rate of women in the workforce. I am not alone in my challenge to find care for my children that extends before and after the school day, when I am expected to be at my desk. If schools offered on-site supervision from 7:30 – 6:30, more parents could earn enough money to send their children to Jewish daycares and schools. Everyone wins. They should also consider creating “halfway rooms” for children too sick to stay in their regular classroom but well enough to remain on the premises, “vacation” care for school holidays (preferably included in regular tuition costs), and scheduling school performances (plays, graduations, etc.) for evenings or Sundays, instead of the middle of the workday.

And finally, we should examine what message we are sending our children, especially our daughters, when we make it so difficult for both parents to work full-time and support their families. We should teach our children (and ourselves) that they can – and should – strive to be whatever they want, and that they will not have to choose between being successful parents or committed professionals. We should ensure that becomes a reality.

As a community, we must put these issues on the table, discuss them, and take steps to make change. Otherwise, we are doing ourselves, our children, and our institutions a continued disservice.

Rachel Wasserman is Director at Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta.