Two years ago, Neta Stahl and Yitzhak Melamed, Ph.D. candidates in Jewish Studies and the parents of Yonathan and Alma, then four years and six months respectively, spent the annual meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) conference “going up and down the escalator, staring at the closed doors of the auditoriums.” Last year, they didn’t even bother to attend. But, this year, thanks to a groundbreaking and powerful grass-roots initiative to provide child care during the conference, Stahl could nurse her baby, light Hanukkah candles with her toddler and still interview for jobs and present her research to her peers. And she and her husband could support one another as colleagues instead of trading childcare responsibilities in exchange for half-time participation at the meeting, which took place in Boston last December.
When in past years AJS members—most of them women—had requested that the board address the issue, their request was denied, with the AJS board citing financial constraints and liability concerns. This year, however, academics planning to attend called the board repeatedly and argued the case to the executive director.
Their effort paid off An auction of second-hand cashmere sweaters organized by Laura Levitt and Miriam Peskowitz raised $300 for the cause. The AJS Women’s Caucus also contributed—$500—as did many other donors. Parents paid a sliding fee, based on need, to use the facilities, which included kosher snacks, rented cribs, toys and high-chairs.
Ten families made use of the child care services, including some who had already made private baby-sitting arrangements. They had been encouraged to bring along their caregivers and kids to use the facilities, to show support.
“The current practices of parenting and childcare in this country stress individual, not communal solutions,” said Peskowitz, co-chair of the AJS Women’s Caucus board, and visiting associate professor of rabbinics at the Reconstructionist College. “[It] still falls predominantly on women’s shoulders. All of us who have tried to parent, teach and continue scholarly life with young children in our lives know the toll that it takes.”