The "Sermon" of the Summit- Pursuing Sh'lom Bayit/Family Wholeness
An abbreviation of this blog entry was first published on "Double Booked," the blog by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, devoted to the struggles of working families in the 21st century.
I was stunned by the data provided the Center for American Progress (mostly from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and the US Department of Census). I couldn't believe that 70 percent of American children live in households where all adults are working. In 1975, just a generation ago, more than half of all kids had a stay-at-home parent. Now, fewer than a third of kids grow up with a parent at home. Meanwhile, the annual cost of child care for an infant in a child care center is higher than a year’s tuition at the average four-year public college in most states!
This fact hit home, as a parent of a sixteen month old. As a rabbi, I typically work more than 60 hours a week, and my schedule is subject to the community's needs. My wife works per diem as a social worker. This means what when our little Caleb gets a cold and sent home from daycare with a low-grade fever, we lose a day's pay. This past year he was sick almost every week, and as the policy goes he had to stay home the next day as well; docked another day's pay. For most of our friends, this is how it goes. This is our "normal." My wife Nicole and I are still so conscious of the fact that we are among the more privileged; we don't live with food insecurity like 20% of US homes with kids; but we find it so hard to make our wonderful family work.
The "great sermon" of the summit identified the real problem behind our situation: Workplaces are still structured for a family of the 60's. Most are designed for families in which one parent stays home, lacking policies that actually take care of our families-- specifically, paid sick days (including care-giving for sick kids and aging parents), equal pay for women, and flexible working conditions.
We heard from our leading politicians, including the President, the First Lady, the Vice-President, and Dr. Jill Biden; they spoke of the need for policy changes-- minimum wage increases, paid sick days, etc. But we also heard from CEO's like Bob Moritz, Chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers, whose company went unlimited with paid sick days and saw that the number of sick days actually taken went down, while productivity rose. Mark Weinberger, CEO of EY, said his company rewards its teams for flexibility-- and in so doing finds increased productivity from its employees. But Weinberger also said something that prompted me to think about my own context, that of the synagogue. Speaking about the solution for this overall societal problem, he said, "it can't be an initiative, it has to be a culture."
In a room of more than a thousand folks, I was one of but a few rabbis the room. And when I hear the word "culture," my mind's eye pictures the synagogue. Synagogues are workplaces too. The "great sermon" preached by this summit is as pertinent to our own houses of worship as any workplace. How are we synagogues doing? I don't think anyone empirically knows the answer to this question-- no survey or studies have been done. I would like to think that we're ahead of the game, but I'm also aware that religious institutions are permitted certain exemptions, like from offering unemployment insurance for employees. As a rabbi in an institution that deeply values its employees, I left the Summit eager to learn about how we and congregations across the country are really doing; what are the best practices, and how can we learn from each other, as each of our communities works to improve our policies to reoriented ourselves to the new reality of working families? We all want synagogues to model compassion not only in our programs but in our policies.
Yet synagogues are also more than workplaces; they are places designed to help families work. The focus of my work at Temple Israel of Boston is two-part: (1) to organize for social justice in our community and greater Boston and (2) to engage and connect to a young adult population that tends to be disengaged by conventional synagogue life. In both areas of my work, I face families who are working so hard to make their families work; boomers who are overwhelmed by the balancing act of working full-time while moving their parents into retirement communities, or caring for them as they decline in health; new parents, whose kids are always getting sick, and whose jobs don't seem to "get it" by supporting them through those times. How are we, in our communities, supporting each other through this unprecedented struggle? Are we reckoning with our families' needs vis-a-vis childcare and "parent-care"?
Among the most supreme Jewish values is Sh'lom Bayit, typically translated "peace in the home" but it may also be rendered, "family wholeness." There are so few institutions families can turn to in order to find "shalom" or wellness. In the past the Jewish community was tightly knit enough for us to support one another with greater ease, with more intuitive compassion. That was then, and this is now. In the past, the synagogue has been viewed as a "meeting house," a "house of worship," a "house of study"; perhaps the time has come for us to add to the list: a resource center for family wholeness (Sh'lom Bayit).
The religious Zionist Rav Kook famously said, "Hayashan yitchadeish v'hachadash yitkadeish-- what is old must be made new, and what is new must be made holy.” Our families need help, and our congregations have a unique role in the work ahead-- through advocacy for civic change, yes, but also in "renovating" our own synagogues to be places where working families can find peace.