Rabbi Matthew Soffer

Double Booked: The Sermon of the Summit: Pursuing Sh’lom Bayit (Family Wholeness)

By Rabbi Matthew Soffer

The White House Summit on Working Families was just a single day, but the crisis prompting the Summit was so clear, so compelling, that the day itself felt like a great sermon.  The bottom line was this: families are working harder than ever, and our workplaces haven’t caught up.  Also, family itself requires extraordinary work, and not only the work of raising children but caring for aging parents.

I was stunned by the data. In 1975, 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!

Workplaces are still structured for the family as it was a generation ago. Most still lack policies that actually take care of our families– specifically, paid leave (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, demonstrating the commitment of the Administration to these issues. But we also heard from CEO’s like Bob Moritz, Chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers, whose company went unlimited with paid sick days and saw the number of sick days actually taken go 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.  Weinberger also 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. 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 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.

Synagogues are also more than workplaces; they are places designed to help families work. In my work at Temple Israel of Boston, 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 that families turn to in order to find shalom or wholeness.  Throughout our history, the synagogue has been many things: 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 sh’lom bayit, family wholeness. Congregations have a unique opportunity to help working families today– through advocacy for civic change, yes, but also by reforming our own synagogues to be places where working families can find peace.

Rabbi Matthew Soffeserves as an associate rabbi of Temple Israel of Boston, where he overseas social justice community organizing and directs the Riverway Project, an initiative which connects young adults to Judaism. Check out his blog, Jewminations or follow him on twitter @mattsoffer.

Comments are an important part of the conversation. Share your thoughts in the comments sectionThis blog is part of a special RACBlog series, “Double Booked: A Conversation about Working Families in the 21st Century,” dealing with the many issues that affect working families, and featuring everything from personal stories to policy analysis. Visit the Double Booked portal to read more posts, or join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #doublebooked.

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