(RNS) — For all the years women rabbis have stood on the bimah, as the pulpit in a synagogue is called, we have had to negotiate job searches, contract negotiations and employment matters using customs and structures built explicitly by and for men.
Consider the case of an early career rabbi considering a job offer when she found out she was pregnant. The congregation, she discovered, didn’t offer any paid time off. She was left with a terrible choice: Disclose her pregnancy, negotiate for better leave conditions and risk pregnancy discrimination, or say nothing, knowing she wouldn’t have access to any leave? In either case, what about the other hopeful parents working at this congregation?
The rabbi’s predicament might have happened anywhere across America’s varied religious landscape, as many faith-based employers are only now reckoning with the reality of women’s lives.
Increasingly, however, houses of worship have begun to employ clergy and staff of all genders, ages and stages of life. There are more than 700 women and nonbinary rabbis of the American Reform Movement alone. High-quality family and medical leave programs are now a necessity.
Rabbis understand our roles as moral leaders, modeling and shaping communities rooted in justice, compassion and care. As employees, we understand that our religious institutions cannot claim moral leadership if we don’t provide high-quality paid family and medical leave to everyone who works under our roofs. As women and nonbinary people, we understand that this is essential for gender equity in our families, communities and country.
The United States is the only industrialized country in the world without a national paid family and medical leave program, and even those laws guaranteeing rights to employees often don’t apply to synagogues, churches, mosques, temples and other religious organizations. But religious employers are free to set their own moral and practical example to show that organizations of all kinds and sizes stand to gain when we voluntarily implement these programs.
That’s why the Women’s Rabbinic Network, which I lead, partnered with the Center for Parental Leave Leadership to conduct research exploring the experiences of women and nonbinary rabbis. Nearly three-quarters of those who responded to our survey had become a parent during their tenure as a rabbi, and almost all of this group took some amount of parental leave. But what happened when they did varied widely, from heartening to heartbreaking.
When formal leave policies did exist, they were often unclear and poorly communicated, exacerbating workplace inequities. Often enough, the “policy” was ad hoc. One rabbi shared that she always believed her congregation offered very poor paid leave, until she discovered that senior staff simply took leave whenever they wanted. Employees lower in the organizational hierarchy didn’t feel empowered to advocate for themselves and simply didn’t get the leave they needed.
Sadly, these stories are not uncommon. Others in our study told us that every contract negotiation “was a battle” and that they had to forgo vacation time, higher salaries and other benefits to negotiate for family and medical leave.
Research consistently shows the benefits for parents, children and employers when religious institutions provide clear, written, high-quality paid family and medical leave policies to all employees, including during the hiring and recruiting process. These include reduced mortality rates for moms, birthing parents and babies; better health and well-being for children and parents; and improved job satisfaction, employer loyalty, attraction, retention and performance.
Job seekers shouldn’t be alone in negotiating paid leave. Neither should individual congregations and organizations be forced to reinvent the wheel. Bringing in expert support and consultation to create policies and aligned practices can be burdensome for small congregations. My organization has developed the Family and Medical Leave Policy Standards for the Jewish Community, which provides template policy language that can be used in employee handbooks and employment contracts, educational context and resources.
Our standard sets a minimum floor for all congregational and other employers in the Jewish community to provide no fewer than 12 weeks of family and medical leave at 100% pay to all employees regardless of gender, job role, length of employment or type of family leave needed.
Paid family and medical leave should be a right guaranteed under federal law without exemption. But there’s no reason to wait while we — and millions of people from all faith backgrounds across the country — advocate for change. Religious institutions in all faith communities are invited to go beyond the requirements of federal law and use our standard or create similar models to ensure that all employees have access to high-quality paid family and medical leave.
We may be exempt from some federal laws, but we are not exempt from our responsibilities for the long-term sustainability of our organizations, or from our moral imperatives.