Why Don’t Jewish Organizations Support Parenthood?

An editorial in a recent issue of Lilith read, in part: “If young women should be encouraged to have children in their relatively fertile years, they have to be supported by a community taking child rearing seriously as a shared endeavor.” The editorial spoke about the support that Jewish organizations—synagogues, community centers, offices—should provide.

Literally, the week after reading this, I met with the director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle (where I work part-time directing the Community High School of Jewish Studies for the Seattle area) to discuss my upcoming maternity leave. My husband (also a rabbi) and I are expecting in two months. The Federation, like so many non-profit organizations, does not offer a specific “maternity leave,” because maternity is considered a disability and treated as such. In truth, I never knew about this policy, because I am covered for most health insurance through my husband’s congregation. Nevertheless, for an organization whose purpose is the perpetuation of Jewish continuity, it’s surprising that they do not support the number one commandment of pru ur’vu by supporting its female employees.

I am in a small havurah made up of five female Reform rabbis here in Seattle. We meet twice a month, and the subject of maternity leave in the Jewish community is now our mission. A rabbi-colleague of mine and I met with the director of the Federation, who was very open to our frustration sand very willing to work with us to, perhaps, seek some change. The current policy is like very many other corporate benefits policies. . . that is, maternity is seen as a disability, just like breaking an ankle. I can use my accrued vacation time, sick leave, and personal leave as paid time off until disability kicks in, but that, of course, is only after 90 days, which is the government-mandated time in which a woman must return after leave for maternity if she wants to be guaranteed getting her job back.

My colleague and I suggested a policy that reflects Jewish values, one that encourages young women to have children in their “child rearing years”. We expressed our disgust at the concept of maternity seen as disability. We encouraged the director to look beyond the “equal-ness” of men and women and to look at women as different biologically, which is what we are, and instead of focusing on “equal,” to focus on “fair”. . . and by the way, we did suggest paternity leave that matches!

We raised the question: What if all Jewish women waited until their kids were 18 and off to college before ever devoting themselves, their creativity and intellect, to the Jewish world. . . how sad would that be? What a great loss for the Jewish community?

We have opened up a dialogue that I think could go somewhere good. We’re hoping that instead of viewing child rearing as a “decision that we make and, thus, we have to pay the consequences,” it will come to be viewed as a mitzvah that is supported and encouraged by all Jewish organizations, as reflected in their benefits policy. If the Jewish communal world does not care about the mitzvah of child rearing or the mission of Jewish continuity, then they can comfortably continue to consider maternity a disability. Just as important as maternity benefits are paternity benefits; I would like to see both instituted in a separate policy section, apart from disabilities.

Women leaders across the U.S. and Canada, and those who contribute to a women’s endowment fund through a Jewish Federations, or who are members of the Lion of Judah, can help by asking about maternity leave and other family-issue employment policies in their own Federations.

If we are to try and promote Jewish values in our communal endeavors, whether as rabbis in our congregations or as employees in a Jewish organization, then the policies we adopt that affect our employees should reflect the values that we, as a Jewish community, espouse. 

Laurie Rice was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2001. She is currently rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Woodinville, WA.