Ethics in the Workplace: Jewish Schools and Maternity Leave

Emma Goldberg
November 19, 2012
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Last year I visited six New York Jewish Day Schools and met with administrators to discuss the institutions’ maternity leave policies. And in all of these schools, I noted something troubling. Despite the ethics taught in Jewish studies classes, administrators crafted institutional policies that didn’t meet the health and financial needs of their employees. There was a fundamental disconnect between classroom values and boardroom practices.

On the lower floors of the school I passed classrooms where students were gathered for lessons in Talmud and Tanach. Bent over books, they discussed and debated. In the middle of a heated argument, one student quoted the well-known words of Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Forefathers. “Upon three things the world stands: on Torah, on Worship, and on Deeds of Lovingkindness.”

On the upper levels of the school, I sat down with administrators to discuss the schools’ attitudes towards family leave. None of these institutions offered their teachers fully compensated maternity leave. Many provided nothing more than the United States federal minimum—twelve weeks of unpaid maternity leave. The human resource directors interviewed all offered similar excuses—the schools had to focus funding on their students, budgeting meant making sacrifices and female employees’ needs could not be prioritized. But I failed to see how they could prioritize their students’ educations without providing for the needs of their employees. How could a school stand on Torah and Worship, but disregard “Deeds of Lovingkindness” in interacting with employees? Paid leaves are a necessity if women are to advance themselves in the workplace while also giving proper care to their bodies and their families.

I had previously assumed that the Jewish community would be at the forefront of the battle for compensated family leave. We’re a community that has always advanced critical social justice work and prioritized the needs of families. And yet a 2009 national study on work-life policies conducted by the advocacy group Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community found that fewer than 30 percent of organizations have official parental leave policies, and 10 percent of Jewish organizations offer no maternity leave at all.

It’s all too easy for organizations furthering important causes to forget that their work begins at home, in their interactions with employees. Jewish schools and non-profits can grow so caught up in their big-picture mission statements that they forget how much of an impact they can have even within their own workplaces. American Jewish World Service uses its funding for humanitarian aid work abroad, but it was able to balance its budget and provide employees with paid parental leave. “Some organizations, Jewish and non-Jewish, have values they try to live by, but they interpret their mandate as being what they do in the world,” AJWS President Ruth Messinger said. “They don’t remember that it starts at home, and in this case, home is the office.”

Jewish organizations can play a key role in shaping an American culture where institutions understand the importance of maternity leave. In a 2011 survey of 168 nations conducted by Harvard University, the US was found to be one of only four that do not legally require employers to guarantee working mothers maternity leave with compensation—the other three nations were Papua New Guinea, Lesotho and Swaziland. But Jewish organizations can change that mentality.

When my feminist minyaan in high school discussed the issue of paid maternity leaves, one female student said she understood that Jewish Day Schools chose not to make maternity leave a budgetary priority. She identified parental leave as a “privilege, not a right.” And why would she consider it a right? Her school never considered paid leaves a priority, so why should she? Jewish schools are powerful forces, shaping the values of the next generation of communal leaders. Will that next generation include women leaders who can advance their careers and care for their families? Institutions today make the choices that will answer that question.

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Emma Goldberg is a student at Yale University, passionate about using creativity to mobilize social change in the Jewish community. She has developed innovative social media projects for The Great Schlep, a Jewish pro-Obama Super PAC, and also participated in a Theater and Social Justice apprenticeship with the advocacy institute Ma’yan. She is currently serving as the Northeast Regional Organizer for the anti-genocide organization STAND. Emma was named to the NY Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36” list and was given Auburn Theological Seminary’s Lives of Commitment award.

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