Taking Care of the Family

Rabbi Daniel Plotkin

Recently I participated in a discussion on social media among fellow Rabbis about the concept of maternity leave. The first thing that struck me was that I was surprised at how many of my female colleagues have had trouble getting maternity leave as part of their contracts. Even more surprising to me, was that in 2017 (when the discussion took place), there were many male colleagues who either had no paternity leave or minimal paternity leave in their contracts (or clauses that gave them leave but required them to be available for certain things).

I faced this myself in my career. When I first entered the Rabbinate I didn’t even give it a thought — I was just hoping to find someone to go on a date! (spoiler alert: I did.) Only two years later, as I entered into a second position as a newlywed, it was much more on my mind, but I didn’t put it into my contract. Fortunately, because of the way contracts are generally arranged in the Jewish world, I knew at the beginning of the 2006–7 contract year that my oldest would arrive in January, so I saved my vacation and personal time and created a paternity leave for myself (interrupted, unfortunately, by the death of a beloved member).

When I entered a second contract in St. Louis, I didn’t make the same mistake. I put in three weeks of paid paternity leave, but in negotiation met with resistance from an otherwise supportive member, saying that he never got that (his children were born in the 1980’s). It took a woman on the negotiating team to pipe up and say, “well it was wrong then and it would be wrong now.” Of course my leave was still interrupted because my younger one was born two weeks before Rosh HaShanah.

What I got, however, was still far more than many men, but less than most women. Some might think “great, women get one benefit, men get the rest of them” and I understand that line of thinking. But in the discussion I was in, I brought up the point of how sexist it is against women and men to give women more parental leave than men. While women, in most cases, do need the physical recovery time men don’t, unequal leave still makes the assumption that it will be the woman in a hetero marriage who will be the one to take care of the baby in its infancy.

There are issues with that: What if the woman wants to go back to work and the man wants to stay home? What if there is no woman and two dads are adopting or using surrogacy and both have insufficient leave? What happens if the woman is left incapacitated in some way and the man needs to take care of the baby (someone I know gave birth and then immediately started treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma — leaving the husband to have to care for the baby and his wife)? What happens, God forbid, if the mother dies in childbirth, leaving the spouse to raise the child alone?

In coming to Temple Isaiah, I discussed the concept of paternity leave despite my lack of plans to use it. As it turned out, it wasn’t even a point of negotiation. As I discovered, Temple Isaiah has a set of policies delineated in recent years that is gender neutral, allows full time staff (30+ hours) to take parental leave of up to 6 weeks paid, and 12 weeks total (using accrued vacation and personal leave to continue pay). This leave is stated in completely gender neutral terms, and applies to birth or adoption in addition to other family leave needs.

I’m not writing this to toot TI’s horn here (although I’m proud to be a part of an organization with this type of policy), but to show TI as an example of how businesses, for- and not-for-profit alike, should approach this issue in a way that makes no assumptions about who the parents are, and allows for families to welcome a child in a way that bonds families without the pressure of going right back to work.

We are in a period of time when issues surrounding gender identity and roles are in the news, and greatly in flux. Making policies and running organizations in ways that are as gender blind as possible, makes not only good business sense, but it resonates with our values as Jews from the very first chapter of Genesis: “In the image of God, God created human; Male and Female God created them.”