The Jewish Workplace

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster
November 20, 2012
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It’s a typical work from home Friday. I futz with the challah, started and refrigerated the night before, help my husband feed the girls breakfast and get them off to daycare, start to go through the pile of emails that have magically appeared overnight. Eventually I shower. While at the dry cleaners, with the clock ticking to run to the grocery store before calling into a board meeting, I take a call from an interfaith ally who wants to discuss a new strategic direction. Five minutes turn into fifteen and now I am late. I edit an OpEd on a different campaign, make a soup, bake the challah, answer some more emails, and run to get the girls while ignoring a different call from a different ally who has boundary issues.

By the end of the day, my head hurts. I’ve been pulled many different ways—one moment saving the world like Superwoman, the next hearing the daily report on my toilet-training toddler. But I’m also grateful. My work for a Jewish organization includes part-time work from home two days a week, flexible office hours on the days I do go in, and the trust that we’ll all get the job done if we are able to balance that job with our home life. I’m pretty certain our staff manual includes more variations on flexible work arrangements, like compressed work weeks or job sharing, than just about any other Jewish organization out there. I’ve had both my daughters since being at my job, which means I actually don’t know how to be a working parent anywhere else and am not certain anywhere else would be as accommodating.

Flexibility is nearly as important to many of us as salary, and yet it is harder to achieve or even to ask for. Certainly, as I look at my peers (mostly, but not entirely, women—another element of the non-senior levels of Jewish organizations), one thing stands out: flexibility comes with seniority, and flexibility comes with trade-offs. The longer you stay somewhere, the easier it is to ask for a more personalized schedule. One friend telecommutes across the country—but would never have been hired if she hadn’t initially lived in New York. Another cuts back her hours after the birth of a baby—but she’s already a valued and rising member of the staff. And a third negotiates more time off in the summer instead of the raise that wasn’t coming this year anyhow. One could argue that all this flexibility discourages employee turnover—and it does. I love what I do, but even when things are brain-hurtingly-hectic, I value my employer because of the flexibility my family and I need. But it also discourages ambition. People are scared to leave their jobs with flexibility because it is such a rare commodity in the Jewish community. They are afraid the good will that enables them to work from home when a child is sick or leave early to join a spouse with a weekend pulpit in another state will be impossible to ask for somewhere else.

Flexibility is also marginalized as a women’s issue (or a mothers’ issue), but everyone benefits from a workplace that trusts the needs of its employees and is thus valued by them in response. Moreover, if only women are granted flexibility, the Jewish community ends of reinforcing the common designation of women as primary parents—even when both parents work—because her job is perceived of as more flexible. I remember reading a study somewhere that looked at doctor/academic straight couples, and no matter whether the woman was academic or the doctor, her job was seen as more flexible.

My dad used to be a pulpit rabbi, and I remember all of us chaffing at the expectations placed on him (both general ones expected of a rabbi vs family time, and being somewhat ahead of his time as an involved father) and my mother. Things have changed somewhat, but we still have a way to go before the values expressed by the Jewish community are made real for everyone who works for it.

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Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster is the Director of North American Programs for Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. Ordained in 2008 from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she was a student activist and leader, she is a noted speaker and writer on Judaism and human rights. While in rabbinical school, she worked as rabbinic intern at the JCC of Manhattan, where she was a taught midrash and introductory Judaism, and at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. Her writing has appeared in Sh’ma, Conservative Judaism, and several anthologies, and she is a regular contributor to the blog The Jew and the Carrot and to the Huffington Post. Rabbi Kahn-Troster was also a 2009-2010 D’var Tzedek fellow for the American Jewish World Service. She serves on the boards of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and Hazon.

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