Lieber, now a professor of religion who holds the Sophia Ava Asbell Chair in Judaic Studies at Dickinson College, cheered the new provision: “I know that what seems like a small change actually will have important impact on the professional lives of many.”
“The AJS’s leadership—many of them parents of young children themselves—recognize the difficulty in juggling professional and family commitments, and hopes this year’s childcare program can make that balancing act a little less challenging,” said AJS Executive Director Rona Sheramy in an email to Lilith. “This program is the result of members who care deeply about supporting parents at an early stage of their academic careers; generous donors who are committed to making available affordable, high-quality childcare; and AJS’s leadership.”
The Association of Jewish Studies’ President Pamela Nadell, Patrick Clendenen Chair in Women’s and Gender History and Director of the Jewish Studies Program at American University, echoed this sentiment in an emailed statement. Acknowledging the broad base of financial support for this year’s change, Nadell said: “I am especially grateful to the Journal of Jewish Identities, our anonymous donor, and the AJS members who supported our child care fund.”
The Association of Jewish Studies is an umbrella organization for over 1800 faculty members, graduate students and other scholars in the field of Jewish Studies and is the largest such organization worldwide.
When Lieber approached AJS in 2002 about providing informal child care, “The plan was to find local babysitters who could provide care on site; [we’d] bring our own snacks and toys. All we needed was a space.” Lieber recalls that one of her colleagues was surprised that AJS agreed to provide the space. “It was the start of a culture shift in the association.”
That year, in order to raise funds for the newly secured space, Laura Levitt, currently a Professor of Religion, Jewish Studies and Gender at Temple University, organized what would become an annual tradition—the Cashmere Rescue auction. The funds raised from this event were earmarked for financing child care at the AJS’ conference.
Through the work of the AJS’ Women’s Caucus and its growing number of women scholars, including Levitt and Lieber—funding was secured from a variety of sources, including private donors. By 2005, a grant from the Posen Foundation for the Study of Secular Judaism provided initial funding to cover child care at the AJS conference. After that funding dried up, child care was again not provided.
In 2015, 14 years after that AJS conference Lieber and Merwin attended as new parents, another academic parent faced a similar predicament. Rachel Harris, Associate Professor of Israeli Literature and Culture at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, had been a “childless student” at the 2001 conference and noticed at the time how the lack of child care seemed to dominate conversations among the participants in the Women’s Caucus. Now, as a new parent, she was facing the same challenge herself. Like the earlier cohort of parents, she decided to take action. “The fact that 14 years later a whole new generation of scholars has taken the reins and pushed the organization to take ownership of this program makes me so proud,” says Lieber.
Harris wrote an editorial in the journal Inside Higher Ed criticizing academia for its failure to provide consistent child care at academic conferences, and she specifically mentioned AJS. “It is disingenuous to ask why this topic remains a women’s problem, but it should not be the problem of women’s groups,” wrote Harris in 2015. “Instead it is time that program committees and academic associations more broadly take responsibility.” The piece was picked up by Slate and—no surprise—went viral.
Harris began to organize parents to approach the Association of Jewish Studies about including facilities to make its annual conference more accessible to academics with young children. “I thought that it was important to include male voices in the conversation. This is part of my effort to highlight this as a scholar issue, and while it disproportionately affects women (particularly because many are nursing for the first years of life), it also affects some men,” Harris emailed Lilith. As the concerns of the group became more widely known, support spread. “Many people who no longer had young children, or who were never parents themselves, expressed strong support for the initiative and showed a great deal of solidarity for our concerns.”
Whether the funding will continue beyond the 2016 conference is still unknown, according to AJS’s Rona Sheramy. “My hope is that many parents will make use of the child care program in San Diego, demonstrating the need for these services, so that we can go back to our generous donors and ask for their support in subsequent years.”