Aligning Values and Policies

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November 1, 2012
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Felicia Sol

It is not atypical to arrive at a shiva home, or a meeting, or to bump into a congregant on the street and hear: “Where are your children?” I’m perplexed by the question. I work full-time as a rabbi and I assume people know I have full-time child care. But the question, I believe, is less one of practicality and more a reflection of concern and curiosity. How can a shul committed to family values and a work-home balance employ a rabbi who is a single mom who works at night? Deeper questions emerge: Is it possible to serve as rabbi to a community while raising a family — especially as a single mother?

After serving as a spiritual leader for an 1,850-family community for eleven years and being a mother for the past 21⁄2 years, I have some insight into what makes me tick, how the challenges of the vocations of motherhood and congregational spiritual leadership interplay, and how a community can strive to live out Jewish values in the workplace.

I began my work in the pulpit and my life as a mother at different times, although I know this is not possible for many women. Learning to come into one’s own in each of these roles takes time, a serious amount of self-reflection, practice, and patience. It took at least five years for me to feel comfortable in my rabbinate and to have a strong sense of my own voice and confidence in my place in the community. So by the time I became a mother, I had the support, trust, and encouragement of the community and I knew my “role.” After having my first child, I actually felt less torn about the balance between work and home, because the boundaries were clear. Though many rabbis find it difficult to create boundaries around their work commitments, when my nanny (who makes my life possible) needs to leave, I need to be home. Aside from responding to a death or some other emergency, most of my work, including emails and conversations, can wait. In addition, because I have limited time at work, I must be more focused. Having a child has taught me the lesson of rabbinic dispensability. Not every program or meeting needs me and certainly the shul survived while I was on maternity leave. This does not mean that I don’t have pangs of wanting to be in two places at once, or that my voice doesn’t make a unique contribution. It just means that I have a dual calling, and in making the choice to heed both calls, I need not be a martyr, but I need to own that privilege and responsibility.

The irony, of course, is that the very same Jewish organizations that are meant to teach Jewish family values, to honor Shabbat, and to educate Jews about the spiritual meaning and purpose of their life choices, often fail to live up to those values when it comes to their own staffs. How many employees of Jewish institutions bring their work home over Shabbat? How many Jewish organizations provide paid maternity leave or flextime?

Most working mothers feel they never have enough time, and most Jewish institutions feel they never have adequate resources. In the end, many nonprofits decide they can’t offer a benefits package that expresses the values of the institution for lack of funds. While there are no simple answers, it is essential that Jewish institutions take these questions seriously; it is crucial that every institution assess how it expends its financial resources in light of how it values its human resources. We must live our values and create institutions where values and policies are more aligned, and where the message is clear that work and family can be balanced.

In our community, we have made progress on a handful of these issues in the past couple of years. We now offer three months of paid maternity leave instead of our previous offer of six weeks of paid leave. We have committed ourselves to dedicating space for nursing mothers on our staff so that they can pump their breast milk (many working mothers pump at work so they can continue to give their babies breast milk, in a bottle, even when they are not at home) — even if they don’t have a private office. In addition, we have ongoing conversations with staff about the life-work balance.

Questions linger:  What perception does a community have of a rabbi who is a woman when she has a baby? How does it change the community’s perception of her availability, her commitment, and her authority? Will women in the rabbinate redefine the nature of the pulpit rabbinate and its boundaries?  How might Jewish institutions and communities create work
environments where honoring work and family simultaneously is part of the culture? Should communal institutions that serve as an umbrella for Jewish nonprofits create standards for family leave and flextime?

I recently returned to work after a partial maternity leave and now, when I leave in the morning and ask my son where am I going, he responds with this new word he has learned: “work.” Feeling a heaviness in my heart that he now understands that I am committed to something besides his wellbeing, I commented, “Yes, mama needs to go to work — bummer.” As anyone with a 2 year old knows, a comment can come back to haunt. Yesterday, when I asked him where I was going, he replied, “Work — bummer.” With his precious face staring at me as I left the apartment and the sadness of saying goodbye, I left home feeling how blessed I am to love my children so deeply that it is (sometimes) hard to say goodbye and to feel a skip in my step as I make my way to work. Far from being a bummer.

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Rabbi Felicia Sol has served as a spiritual leader at B’nai Jeshurun in New York since 2001. In 2005, Sol received the New York City Council’s Woman of Achievement Pacesetter Award after being nominated by Councilwoman Gale Brewer. She currently serves on the board of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice. Sol lives in New York City with her son and daughter.

1 Comment

  1. An interesting contrast in two companies can be found in a past issue of Portfolio Magazine that featured the Iowa meat packing plant owned Chabadnicks,, Agriprocessors, and American Apparel. This tale of two Jewish owned companies contained some very instructive contrasts and ironies.
    Both businesses happened to be manufacturing companies, owned by Jews that employ low to moderately skilled poor people – our society’s most needy. Both companies are/were dominant in their industry niche and both have rather eccentric, offbeat entrepreneurs who started their company with a very strong vision
    Agriprocessors, owned by a Hassidic Jew, professed to strictly follow Talmudic code and help Jews be more observant, yet their hiring practices violated every precept found in the Bible. American Apparel, makes no claim to a higher power. . Dov Charney, is no Yeshiva Buchar, yet his company exemplifies what Talmudic principals have always stood for – fair, just treatment of one’s employees.
    The contrast presents a fascinating irony

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