Tag Archives: Work-Life Balance

The Maternity Leave Mitzvah


The details may vary from patient to patient, but the scenario is usually the same. A mother and newborn baby come to my pediatric office for their first doctor’s visit when the newborn is three or four days old. As I speak to the mother, I always ask her if she has any questions or concerns. Even though her newborn is only a few days old, often the mother would like to discuss daycare options, or how she could pump and store breast milk for her anticipated return to work in a few short weeks. The first weeks and even months after a new baby is born should be spent with the mother, partner, and siblings bonding, but all too often, families use their limited time at home worrying about and preparing arrangements for when they return to work rather than relaxing with their newborn.

The United States has one of the poorest maternity leave policies in the world. In fact it is the only industrialized country with no law requiring paid parental leave. Under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), mothers are entitled to take off up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave after giving birth, as long as the company employs a minimum number of people and the mother has been employed there for at least one year. Many women use saved sick and vacation days to supplement the unpaid leave. According to the United Nations, the United States is so far behind that it is one of only two countries in the world (the other being Papua New Guinea) that does not have paid maternity leave. Many of these statistics are well known and thankfully there are many legislators and organizations working hard to rectify this situation.

Sadly, I have observed that many of the mothers and fathers in my office, and many of my friends who have unpaid, short, or no family leave work for Jewish organizations. Some of these organizations provide only four to six weeks of unpaid maternity leave, forcing many mothers to make a choice to return to work only a few short weeks after giving birth. Other organizations require new mothers to apply for short-term disability benefits, which provide only a percentage of one’s regular pay, in lieu of paying for maternity leave. Many fathers are eligible for only a few days off, if any. Even though these policies may be on par with other organizations and companies in the United States, Jewish organizations must consider whether these types of paltry parental leave policies are really in keeping with Jewish values. Aren’t we constantly praising our community’s emphasis on Jewish family life and the importance of raising and educating our own children? Yet do our own non-profits, federations, day schools, and other Jewish organizations really model these values? Do we show parents that time spent with their newborns is important and necessary? As a pediatrician, I see many mothers who have to give up breastfeeding earlier than they would like to because of an early return to work, fathers who feel stressed that they are given only a few paid days to be home with their families, and families who do not have the time needed to bond with their newborn. It is clear that Jewish organizations are not modeling the values that they preach.

To be fair, the primary reason many Jewish organizations give for offering only unpaid parental leave is that they are non-profits, so by definition have limited funds, and therefore cannot afford to pay employees during parental leave. Also, many organizations argue that they are unsure what standards should be included in an equitable parental leave policy and how to craft one. But this should not deter our community from finding a solution.

Through their “Better Work, Better Life campaign,” Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community (AWP) provides comprehensive recommendations, guidelines, and standards to help organizations develop equitable parental leave policies for their workplaces. Nearly one hundred organizations have joined the campaign and established family leave policies using AWP’s standards. Unfortunately, there are few Orthodox organizations represented on this list and it is time that the Orthodox community begins to examine their own attitudes and standards towards family leave. Women and men in the Orthodox community can begin by asking to meet with their synagogue, school, and communal leaders to ask if their organizations have an equitable family leave policy and if not, offer to help implement one. Additionally, organizations need to think creatively and consider increased work and job flexibility for returning parents.

It certainly may take some creative efforts to allow for better paid parental leave and more flexibility but as Jews, we should hold ourselves to our own standards that reflect our own values and beliefs and not simply provide our families and communities with the bare minimum that has become accepted as the norm in this country. Supporting Jewish families through strong parental leave policies provides an opportunity to model Jewish values and more importantly, directly impact the health and well-being of our individual members.

For more on this topic, you can watch a recording of a recent JOFA webinar titled “Work-Life Balance, Equal Pay, and Staying on the Promotion Track: Advocating for Yourself in the Workplace” or follow part II of the conversation that can be found at jofa.org/blogcast

Posted on March 23, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Listen to Your Head and Your Heart When You Make the Next Change in your Professional Career

shutterstock_183125153Two years ago, I ignored every rational and logical thought in my head.

I was completing the twentieth year of a wonderful career in academic leadership at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.  I had recently been appointed the Executive Vice Provost (one of the top leadership positions in the University) and was in charge of strategic planning and growth of online education and a variety of entrepreneurial educational opportunities being pursued by Hopkins. I was in a great place.

A close friend called me one day to say, “I know you are never going to leave Hopkins, but I know of a great opportunity and you are the perfect candidate.”  I innocently asked for more information and soon learned that ShalomLearning, a small start-up offering an online and blended learning option to pre-B’nai Mitzvah kids, was looking for a CEO to take the organization to the next level.  What a great opportunity to combine my knowledge and skills in education and technology with my lifetime passion for Judaism and Jewish education.  My brain was saying, “Stop and think this through,” but my heart was saying, “Go for it and worry about the details later.”

I leapt with my heart and left my professional comfort zone (built up over twenty years) for an entirely new world of work. I jumped into the proverbial deep end of the pool. Why did I shake up this world of comfort – and would I recommend anyone else do the same?

Let’s assume you have a good job and are perfectly satisfied with your current position. The work-life balance is good, your boss is supportive, and your colleagues are enjoyable. But let’s also assume that the challenge of the job has disappeared. You can do your work with one hand tied behind your back.

Nothing is wrong, but nothing is really right.

shutterstock_176716529It might be time to Assess, Review, and Match (ARM).  Either with the help of a mentor or coach, or just by yourself, examine your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.  The best time to focus on yourself is when there is no pressure to do so.  Your job is not in jeopardy and time is on your side.

Assess.  Take stock of your passions and your goals.

Review.  Do an accounting of any issues that may be holding you back.

Match.  Pair-up your skills and knowledge with potential opportunities for advancement.

Get started by putting four tasks on your to-do list:

  1. Schedule regular updates of your resume and your LinkedIn profile. It takes just a few minutes to jot down an accomplishment from last week. But it takes several hours to reconstruct a project that you finished last year.
  2. Seek advice from trusted friends and mentors in your professional world.  Chances are the perfect mentor is nearby and interested in sharing their experiences and knowledge. You can have one mentor or you can have many mentors. There are no rules. The most important criterion is that you share a mutual respect for one another.
  3. Network and stay current. Read a book on a subject that you’re not familiar with, attend a lecture, listen to a podcast that is related to your field of work, or just pick up a copy of the Harvard Business Review (one of my personal favorites).
  4. Join the JOFA Webinar on Tuesday, March 17 as I moderate a discussion with two outstanding Jewish women professionals Shifra Bronznick and Ariela Migdal on the topic of “Work-Life Balance, Equal Pay, and Staying on the Promotion Track: Advocating for Yourself in the Workplace.”

These kinds of activities will ensure that you are ready for your next move – even if a job search is not on the horizon just yet. When you are ARMed – you are ready.

Posted on March 12, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Take Back the Night (and the Day)

men in conference roomRushing into a conference midway through a speech, I scanned the room for a seat then stopped, startled. Had I entered the Gentlemen’s Gallery of an Orthodox synagogue? But this wasn’t a synagogue – it was a colloquium on derivatives at an Ivy League university! Why was I the lone woman?

I sat down. My mind wandered from derivatives back to another era. It was my first year at Sydney University in Australia and upon entering my maiden Economics tutorial I was confronted with a boys’ football huddle in formation. Prying apart the interlaced arms to make a place for myself, I asked the female tutor, “Where are our money-minded sisters?”

“You’ll get used to it,” the tutor comforted me. But she was wrong. I entered university as women were flooding the disciplines and quickly taking up half the medical and law schools and I usually had plenty of female company in class. Those football physiques provided no advantage in competing for academic awards, which in my year were swept up by women.

Today, responsibility for the tax policy of the United States of America rests with my team. It is the highest honor to be invited to join and log the grueling hours expected of us. Work has a sacred quality: the more you do, the holier you are. Leaving before 7pm is like sneaking out of synagogue midway through the sermon. Extracurriculars such as family or aiding the poor are commendable in small doses; but the core of an American’s identity and the bulk of her or his time must be devoted to paid labor.

kids and computer

Photo copyright Lydia Polimeni

Kim and I are the only women on the team with young children. Whenever we catch a moment to chat, Kim dwells on how deficient she feels. “I only come in three days a week, and I just can’t give it my all,” she moans. “If I’m battling the mess at home, I’m thinking about the pile on my desk; and when I sit behind the pile, I’m imagining the volcano smoldering at home.” She laments that she cannot throw herself into the job with enough gusto to command respect from our colleagues.

Kim is wrong. She is a Harvard Law graduate with elite law firm experience and we all vie for the excellent judgment she rations out to our office. But because suffering servitude is the sanctified life, an employee who gives obeisance to a god other than work feels dismissed to the B League.

At a recent staff meeting, our boss announced that superstar Eva will not be returning to work after maternity leave. “Poor thing, she couldn’t bear to leave her baby,” the boss said. Kim and I made eyes. Neither she nor I could bear to leave our babies either, but it happens I am a single mom and she is married to a man who toils for the poor and underrepresented. This means that we must work for the rich and overrepresented. Eva’s husband is so fabulously busy at his place of business that he didn’t make it quite in time for the birth of his first child.

So Eva defects to the other side and Kim and I walk into rooms full of men like Eva’s husband.

But why did I feel so awkward at the conference on derivatives? How exalted was my position there, a peer amongst the most august thinkers in my field! Because I’m a lawmaker, all were deferential to me and there was only one dirty joke the whole day! Altogether, I was welcomed into the boys’ club.

On Shabbat morning, I skipped the conference and attended Orthodox services with my brother, where an opaque curtain separates men and women. Surrounded by flowing skirts, I was anonymous, blessedly shut out from the men. This community of women is my community; here I am invisible. And when I go out to play in the working world, the world of men, I must leave behind the fields of flowing skirts and the dividing screen. Even in games I practice every day, the rules remain unnatural, unfamiliar. Even when invited to join the A League, I remain an outlier.

As Shabbat was ending, my brother and I joined the campus gathering of “Take Back the Night,” an international movement to end violence against women. As the speeches began, my brother pointed out the simultaneous translation into American Sign Language. For him, a hearing-impaired social worker battling for those discarded into the Z League, this was a profound symbol of inclusion.

As we walked through the darkening streets and the ASL signs were lost, I mused, “How many and varied are the hierarchies of man and how glorious must be the view from the top.”

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Posted on May 5, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy