Sisterhood Blog

Paid Maternity Leave Should be a Right, Not a Privilege

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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Oh to be a working mother in Israel, where women who give birth will soon get 14 weeks of paid maternity leave. Fourteen weeks? I’d have been happy to get 14 days of paid leave in this country.

In Jane Eisner’s Forward editorial this week, she writes about Israel’s move to extend legally mandated maternity leave benefits. She also writes about the dismal reality among American Jewish organizations, as recently documented by Advancing Women Professionals.

In the editorial, Jane writes about Mechon Hadar, an egalitarian yeshiva on the Upper West Side whose chair, Ariela Dubler, made instituting paid parental leave a priority. I loudly applaud Hadar’s policy giving four weeks of paid maternity leave for each year of employment, up to 16 weeks.

If someone were to take four months of paid parental leave it would be a fiscal challenge for the small organization. This is an argument long used by businesses and not-for-profits to justify not providing paid parental leave, as it was in the early 1990s, when the federal Family and Medical Leave Act was being debated. Pregnant with my first child at the time, I clearly remember the debate – and the eloquent rhetoric in favor of FMLA from leaders of several Jewish organizations even as they had no family leave provision in their own company’s rules, which I documented in an article for JTA (which is unfortunately not available online).

But Ms. Dubler, a law professor at Columbia University, is quoted in the editorial as saying Mechon Hadar is “balancing generosity and risk.”

Therein lies part of the problem. Having a paid parental leave policy is viewed as “generosity,” as a gift, as something “extra,” or “over and above.”

It should not be.

Significant paid parental leave should be regarded as fundamental to the benefits policy of any Jewish organization. (Any organization, for-profit or not-, in fact).

It should be regarded as integral a part of the benefits as the chief executive’s weeks of paid vacation.

Not providing paid maternity leave is, in effect, a bias against women who give birth and are forced to either return very quickly to work, which is inhumane, or to struggle financially in order to be home with their child.

It communicates that women who have children are not valued employees and are, in fact, dispensable.

All companies – but here I focus on Jewish organizations – should be treating female employees who are also mothers as if they are valued for what they bring to their job and the firm. It is not only the right thing to do, but should be true, and working mothers should be treated as such.

When you are a mother and work in the Jewish community you see that there is an enormous gulf between rhetoric and reality. “Jewish Continuity” is what every Jewish organization works for, in one way or another. But most give little more than lip service to the reality of what it means.

We have to change the language when we talk about paid maternity leave in order to bring about a paradigm shift.

It should no longer be seen as “generosity” on the part of Jewish organizations, but rather as something to be expected. If this shift is to take place, then the men who lead almost every single major Jewish organization must embrace it as a priority.

I was working for a unionized news organization when I had my first child, 15 years ago. Being part of the union there permitted me two weeks of paid maternity leave and up to six months unpaid. It is a measure of how bad policies are for new mothers in most workplaces that that six months of unpaid leave felt like a luxury because my job was secure.

Like many women continue to do, I scrimped and saved my two weeks of paid annual vacation time so that I could have income for a little more of my maternity leave. I don’t think I took a single vacation day for the two years leading up to the birth of my son. It was a real financial strain to not be paid for several months. Then as now, it takes two people working to be able to support a Jewish family life in New York.

When I had my second and third children, I was working for a different news organization half time. As a part-time employee, I had no paid time off. If a holiday fell or I was sick on a workday, I had to make that time up. With my second birth I think I took off a month of unpaid time. With my third, I took one week off, unable to afford longer than that. My boss generously permitted me to work only from home for several more weeks.

But we should not have to depend on the goodwill of our bosses to be able to recover from the physical and emotional experience of childbirth (or adoption, for that matter) and bond with our babies.

That the State of Israel is extending its mandated paid parental leave is a wonderful step.

Those who lead American Jewish organizations should follow Israel’s example.

been there sister Thu. Dec 17, 2009

Precisely. Another example of the need for the community to put its money where its mouth is. When my child was younger, a senior (very) colleague noted that I sometimes left a few minutes early (so as not to be late for daycare pick up) and suggested that the younger staff were talking about it. I suggested that the younger staff be sent directly to me to discuss the enduring nature of work-life balance.

SBriz Fri. Dec 18, 2009

Well, then if you expect to get paid each and every time you want to have a kid, don't expect to get paid equally as men - who do not take off and therefore, can be relied upon to provide work (and thus revenue) for their employers. Also, don't expect to get high level positions or great positions of authority if employers always have to worry will this person always be out on leave.

You can't have it both ways and it is a struggle, but it's a choice and if you decide to have a child, then don't expect to get a package to stay home. It's not how the working world works.

I plan to start a family soon and I made the choice to defer to get my career going and to be able to afford one period. If I couldn't, then I wouldn't take on the endeavor and I certainly wouldn't expect my employer to have to pay me for time I won't be at work providing any means of support, labor, etc. in my job position. I wanted to get paid equally with men and I have; you can't want equal rights and then when it's inconvenient for you "cry woman" so that you can benefit from your status as such. Nonsense.

sd Sat. Dec 19, 2009

Sbriz: talk to you in 20 years...I'll be interested in your perspective then.

Noa Sat. Dec 19, 2009

Israel has had paid maternity leave of 14 weeks for several years now (previously it was 12 weeks). This is not something new. The money for the leave does not come from the employer, rather it comes from the National Insurance Institute, which all employees pay into directly from their salary. No employer has to pay a female employee for "not working". The State of Israel considers building its population a very important job. The law also allows us to extend maternity leave (unpaid) for up to one year, and our job is required to be waiting for us. We are also allowed time off during the pregnancy for doctor's visits (one hour per week), and full-time employees are allowed an hour off per day for breastfeeding or pumping (even mothers who choose not to breastfeed are entitled to this). So the question is, when are you ladies moving here?

non mother Tue. Dec 22, 2009

Why should other people pay for you or any other woman for time off to have children? Is there something wonderfully inherent for anybody but you and your husband in your fulfilling a personal desire to reproduce? Seems the earth has too many people as is and other people don't benefit from your pregnancy. Yes, maybe you'll provide the earth with another Einstein, but you probably won't. You choose to have a child and now it's up to you how to support yourself and family. What bonus should be given to we women who choose not to have a child? An extra couple of weeks off with pay?

Fredric Weizmann Sun. Dec 27, 2009

You don't have to go to Israel to find examples of more enlightened parental leave policies. As Chair of a major department in a large Canadian University, one of the ways we used to recruit talented young American academics was our parental leave policy. Not only mothers, but (optionally) fathers, are entitled to at least one term (12-13 paid weeks off. Since the school year ends in early May, parents who timed it right could basically get 8 months off without penalty. Parental leave rights have recently been extended to include adoptive children as well. More broadly, under Canadian law, women are entitled to collect Unemployment Insurance for one year (up to $440 per week) and many institutions then supplement these payments. Generous leave policies are also available for graduate students, administrative staff and even contract faculty who have taught at the University for a period of time This is not unique to my school; some Canadian Universities have even more generous policies. One of the key differences between American and Canadian Universities is that the latter are heavily--and effectively-- unionized, and I suspect this accounts for much of the differences between US and Canadian institutions. (For more on this, see Jennifer Hyndman's article, '''Balancing work and life: A geography of parental leave," which appeared in Geoforum, 40, (2009), 2-4).

As far as "non-mother's" comments go, who does he/she think will pay their Social Security benefits,fill needed jobs, provide private and public services, etc. Or would he/she prefer to rely on immigration to fill the gap. I would say all of society has a stake in supporting parents.

Vanja Thu. Jan 7, 2010


Just a comment, have you never considered the fact that fathers perhaps deserve time off to bond with their newborn child as well?

In Ontario the mother is eligible to 15 weeks of maternity benefits and both parents are able to receive 35 weeks of paternal benefits. Paternal benefits can also be used to adoptive parents.

thomas Fri. Jan 8, 2010

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