In honor of Labor Day, Rabbi Mary L. Zamore, executive director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, reflects on ethical employment practices and offers a variety of resources to help Jewish workplaces achieve these standards.
Labor Day, the first Monday of September, is the US federal holiday to honor and recognize our workers. In the Jewish community, many frequently describe our places of employment as having cultures like family. However, if we really want to honor the dedicated people who serve as the backbones of our institutions, we must develop the most professional and equitable employment policies and procedures possible. We must ensure equitable hiring, supervision, and promotion; we must create safe, respectful communities. This will honor not only our employees, but also our volunteers, members, and participants. In this manner, we will create cultures in which all can flourish.
For secular employees in the United States, the gender-based wage gap persists. According to a Pew Research Center report, it has barely narrowed in the past two decades. In 2022, American women typically earned 82 cents for every dollar earned by men; this ratio has remained almost the same since 2002, when women earned 80 cents to the dollar. The gap is much wider for women of color. For example, in 2022, Black women earned 70 percent as much as White men, and Hispanic women earned only 65 percent.
Unfortunately, the wage gap also persists in Reform Jewish congregations. The Reform Pay Equity Initiative (RPEI), a project of the seventeen organizations of the Reform Movement and led by Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) and Women’s Rabbinic Network (WRN), gathers data from the five professional organizations of the Reform Movement. This aggregation reveals a gender-based wage gap consistent with secular data.
Professional and lay leaders in each Jewish workplace should examine the RPEI data in order to ascertain if their female-identified employees, as well as those of other protected identity groups, are treated fairly and equitably. The question is not just “do we pay our employees fairly?” but “how do we know for sure that we are creating equity in our workplaces and thus living up to our Jewish values?” This drive for equity also requires that hiring, supervision, and promotion are conducted in the most professional manner and result in unbiased employment practices.
To ensure equity in our Jewish workplaces, we must guarantee that all employees have access to paid family and medical leave. With federal laws failing to provide paid leave, the secular American workplace is an outlier among developing and developed countries. Although the situation is improving at the state level, religious institutions are exempt from these laws. Therefore, the moral imperative is on Jewish leaders to provide clearly communicated, robust paid leave for people of all genders who are growing their families or whose loved ones are experiencing medical challenges. WRN’s paid family leave resource provides accessible information and model language for employment contracts and employee handbooks. This free resource explains that every employee should receive twelve weeks of paid leave.
Finally, our congregations and institutions must be safe, harassment-free, respectful communities for employees and all who interact with these organizations in any capacity. Every congregation and institution should have an ethics policy, which is constantly broadcast to all who gather either virtually or in person. In addition, staff and board members must be trained in the procedures that support the policies. Admittedly, upholding good-quality ethics policies can be difficult. It may require standing up to individuals who otherwise are valued in our communities and letting them know that their harmful behavior will not be tolerated. It may even mean asking these productive perpetrators to leave our communities.[i] It is vital that boards and leaders plan and practice procedures and are prepared to act. The Union for Reform Judaism has a complete resource, as well as professionals and lay leaders, to help congregations study and write an ethics code. Sacred Spaces, an organization dedicated to preventing institutional abuse in the Jewish community, has created Keilim, an online, self-guided policy toolkit. In addition, the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ “The Clergy Monologues” and ARJE’s “The Educator Monologues,” with accompanying study guides (Clergy and Educator), are conversation-starting tools to reflect on gender bias in Jewish spaces.
When we describe our Jewish workplaces as “like family,” we unwittingly send the message that our synagogues and institutions do not need to uphold the highest professional standards for ethical employment as informed by our Jewish values and secular laws. As Reform Jews, we can apply our communal passion for egalitarianism and social justice to safeguard every Reform Movement employee and ensure their access to safe, harassment-free, respectful workplaces. Dedicating ourselves to this goal is the greatest way to honor and celebrate our workers this Labor Day.
Rabbi Mary L. Zamore is the executive director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network. She is the editor of The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic and The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic, both published by CCAR Press.
[i] Productive perpetrators are professional or lay people who contribute to our communities through time, talent, money, knowledge, or social capital. Yet they harm others through bullying or harassment. See Harassment-Free Jewish Spaces: Our Leaders Must Answer to a Higher Standard (RavBlog).