What Do We Need? Paid Family Leave. When Do We Need It? Now!

Paid-Family-LeaveBy Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay,
Betsy Landis, and Stephanie Blumenkranz

A Personal Perspective

Four and a half years ago, following an uneventful pregnancy that didn’t cause me to miss a day of work, I gave birth to twin boys. I was really fortunate. Not every pregnancy goes this smoothly and there is nothing I did better than anyone else to produce this outcome.

It is impossible to overstate how grateful I felt to work at AVODAH, an organization which guarantees up to six weeks of paid leave, in addition to working with me to combine sick and vacation days toward 12 weeks of leave, most of which were paid.

My newborn boys were wonderful, but they were expensive and they did not come with a manual. The fact that I could have been without a job or without pay during this blessed and vulnerable time represents how shortsighted we are as a nation on this issue.

Beginnings are critical. They set the stage for how relationships will develop. Having the opportunity to bond with a child, or children, embrace a new identity as parents, and create a new and expanded family unit takes time and requires focus. Parents need to be home, and there needs to be food on the table and money to pay for the expenses of supporting a family.

Beginnings are when healthy habits are created. Beginnings are when families can get grounded and bonded. They are when a family can root itself and prepare to take its place as a contributing unit in society. Families can’t do any of these things if the mother loses her job when she gives birth, or has pregnancy complications that she can’t address because her job doesn’t permit her to make adjustments to how and when she works.

Recently, I was asked to help a Jewish communal organization recruit for some positions for which they were hiring. I felt uncomfortable helping recruit for an organization that did not offer its employees a sufficient and just period of paid leave. I shared this reaction with the organization which is actually currently working on this at the board level, and anticipates changing their policy in the near future.

They expressed appreciation for the feedback.

Every single one of us has the opportunity to act and advocate for paid leave if we seek out those opportunities. Next time a lay leader or professional asks you to contribute to or play a leadership role in their work, ask them about their paid leave policy. Tell them you’d be more eager to help if they had a more equitable policy.

An Organizational Perspective

A few weeks ago, the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York (JWFNY) held a discussion with donors, grantee partners and friends on the importance of paid leave. The session was facilitated by JWFNY grantees, A Better Balance and Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community (AWP).

Through our work with A Better Balance, individuals in the Jewish community are participating in “Know Your Rights” training sessions that provide information on current workplace policies and the gaps in these policies, including paid leave. In addition, in 2009, AWP embarked on a Better Work Better Life Campaign to encourage the Jewish community to model a just paid leave practice by setting a gold standard of 12 weeks of paid leave.

JWFNY was proudly one of the first organizations to enlist in the campaign.

JWFNY has been beating the drum on this issue for many years. Since 2010, our grant applications have asked organizations to share their paid leave policies, which are factored into our decision making. We believe organizations that provide their employees with the financial security to take time away from work to deal with a serious personal or family illness, or to care for a newborn child, are the organizations that are better able to provide women with equal opportunities to succeed. Organizations with internal structures that support women and families are stronger and better equipped to provide both their employees and their participants with the tools they need to thrive.

At JWFNY we look at the greatest needs of women and families in our communities to create our own agenda. We are used to fighting hard battles that receive little or no media and political attention, however, paid leave has now become an important agenda item for the President of the United States.

In President Obama’s recent State of the Union Address he remarked that he will be “taking new action to help states adopt paid leave laws of their own.”

We applaud the President, for an issue of this stature needs the President’s support. But, just because the President has taken hold of this issue does not mean we can step back. We must join him and strive to make paid leave a state and national right. We must continue to share our personal stories and make it clear why this policy is both necessary and integral to the success of organizations in the Jewish community and the entire country.

A Jewish and National Perspective

There is a midrash about Nachshon, the first Israelite who stepped into the raging Red Sea as the Israelites were fleeing the Egyptians. Nachshon was not one of the public leaders like Moses or Aaron, he was a regular Israelite among thousands. He didn’t wait to be asked to lead, rather he saw a need and he acted. Nachshon used a combination of faith and courage to lead his community to our greatest liberation. In the fight for paid leave, each of us has the chance to be a Nachshon if we seize it. Each of us can consistently and persistently ask about paid leave if we prioritize it.

We urge Jewish agencies and communal institutions to adopt AWP’s gold standard of paid family leave, offering 12 weeks of paid leave, and sign on to the Better Work Better Life Campaign. We must use our faith and courage to show that our Jewish values are reflected in all aspects of our life, including our work.

Every other nation that defines itself as developed and considers itself a human rights leader has a paid leave policy. It’s embarrassing and bad social policy that the US does not have one. The founders of the nation of rugged individuals may have believed that individuals and families could fend for themselves, but what we found with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies is that the nation gets stronger and prospers when it legislates in ways that enable individuals to get ahead with systemically ensured support.

We will not rest until four weeks or more of paid leave is the norm in every Jewish agency and communal institution and we won’t rest until it’s a state and national law. Please join us. We can win this if you commit to asking and advocating for paid leave, acting like a Nachshon. Think of all the other issues we can tackle as a community once paid leave is a law and communal minhag (custom).

Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay is Director of Alumni and Community Engagement at AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps; Betsy Landis is Past President and Honorary Board Member of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York; and Stephanie Blumenkranz is Assistant Director of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York.