Since 1998, JUFJ has worked to put “labor” back into Labor Day by engaging our local Jewish communities in a collective conversation about our texts, our historical experiences, and the challenges facing workers today via our Labor on the Bimah program. This year’s Labor on the Bimah focused on paid family and medical leave and Maryland’s Time to Care campaign, and included at least 14 services and presentations at a range of congregations. Below are some highlights from Labor on the Bimah 2021, along with ways you can get involved with the Time to Care campaign.
JUFJers across Maryland began working to pass a Paid Family and Medical Leave law in 2019. In the face of so many injustices in our world today, we chose this campaign because providing workers with paid leave when they are welcoming a new child, caring for an injured or sick family member, or caring for themselves is critical. Paid leave prevents working families from having to choose between putting food on the table and taking care of a loved one. Our Jewish tradition holds sacred both the value of work and the need to take time away from that work to care for ourselves and our families.
JUFJ is proud of the role we played in the passage of Paid Family and Medical Leave in Washington, DC, where 10,000 working people have been able to take paid leave over the last year, something that’s been especially necessary for families during the pandemic. In Maryland, we are working with the Time to Care Coalition to pass a bill in the General Assembly that will ensure paid leave for working people and their families all across Maryland.
Highlights from Labor on the Bimah 2021
When I had my daughter, I was able to wipe out the 6 years of sick leave and most of my saved annual leave too so that I could stay home with her and still have an income. I was able to do the same thing when my mom broke her hip and shoulder and had to stay in rehab for weeks or when she developed kidney disease; take my own sick leave to take care of her and take her to doctor’s appointments. But millions of Marylanders are not so lucky. They are in jobs that either don’t earn leave or they cannot accrue it. What do they do when they have, or adopt a child, their significant other or parent or grandparent gets sick?
Brad Sachs wrote in his 23 August Elul reflections that “We are known as the People of the Book, but we are asked by our many Books not so much to take a leap of sacred thought, but to take a leap of compassionate action.” This is what I am asking of you today and going forward.
-Heidi, Oseh Shalom, Laurel
Torah, in its many interpretations, is meant to guide Jewish life: our values, our actions, our goals, and our most important decisions. Sometimes, though, it can feel challenging to reconcile the ideals we learn from our study of Torah with the limitations and difficult conditions imposed on us by “real life.” For example, our tradition teaches that workers should not be oppressed, going as far to say that a poor worker should be treated like a member of our own household.
Such teachings may sometimes strike us as nice sentiments but unlikely or impractical to implement in an economic system based on the idea of limited resources. This kind of conflict may sometimes make Torah feel idealistic, esoteric, or impractical. Yet the Torah itself anticipates and responds to this argument, declaring that it is neither too hard for us, nor too distant. It must have meaning in our everyday lives and we are capable of living it.
That message can be applied to our actions to create a just workplace. If we have the courage to recognize that some labor practices create working conditions that run contrary to Jewish values we can act knowing that a just workplace creates a net positive good. Parashat Nitzavim urges us not to imagine this goal as too far away or unattainable, but to take it upon ourselves to act, using our mouths and our hearts, to enact policies like a Paid Family and Medical Leave program for Maryland that will help us care for ourselves, benefit our whole community, and honor the Divine spark in every human being.
-Alana, Kehilat Pardes, Rockville
One thing that has stood out to me during this pandemic is how little our society puts its money where its mouth is when it comes to actually valuing the role of the caregiver: whether it’s women dropping out of the workforce in record numbers to respond to newly expanded childcare needs, the mental health toll on healthcare workers who have treated an onslaught of COVID patients in wave after wave, individuals with chronic conditions who have had to figure out workarounds for living/working/existing in the middle a global pandemic to adequately protect and care for themselves. All of these things reveal the failures to create safeguards in our country and communities that would ensure there is not a floor below which people can fall because they get sick or their loved one gets sick or because they welcome a child into their life.
-Lauren, Bolton Street Synagogue, Baltimore
One interesting aspect of the parashah is the inclusivity of its definition of community. This is especially poignant as we prepare to stand together, physically in the building or virtually online, and call on God to consider our fate, standing as one people – im haavaryanot – with all the sinners. And the inclusive definition of community is even more noteworthy in contrast to the exclusivity described when the Torah was given at Mt Sinai… In Exodus 19, we read that God will give the Torah לְעֵינֵ֥י כׇל־הָעָ֖ם in eyes of all people. However, a few verses later, we see that the word ha-am, at least according to Moshe, does not include women... Furthermore, the text emphasizes a hierarchy – Moshe’s unique position is made clear, as well Aharon. The elders and kohanim are singled out, but no one else. Several midrashim emphasize that Israel is singled out among all the nations to receive Torah. The everyone of kol ha-am at Har Sinai appear to only refer to the adult male Jews, with special roles for the leaders.
Compare that to parashat Netzavim… Yes, the various divisions are mentioned, but they are mentioned to emphasize that everyone was standing there and that all were of equal standing in the eyes of God, regardless of position or stature in the eyes of humans. Perhaps Moshe has grown in his understanding, realizing the mistake that he made earlier by interpreting God’s command that the people should “stay purified for three days” so narrowly that it excluded women from the community…
When I first came to Washington as an intern in the summer of 1990, I lobbied on behalf of the American Jewish Congress for passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act – FMLA. This bill was first introduced in 1984 and was re-introduced every single year until it was finally signed into law in January, 1993. The bill, like most great legislation in America, was a compromise – the original goal was up to 16 weeks of paid leave for every worker. What actually passed was 12 weeks of unpaid leave and businesses with less than 50 employees were exempted. There were also no provisions for the self-employed. This landmark bill simply guaranteed that if you were out with a major medical catastrophe for yourself or a defined family member, you would still be guaranteed a job when you returned.
Just as Moshe’s understanding of “everyone” deepened over the course of the Torah, so too has our society’s understanding of the need for a more inclusive Family and Medical Leave Act. In fact, tired of waiting for the federal government to act, 9 states and the District of Columbia have already passed some form of paid medical leave. And this year, there will be major push to bring it to Maryland also.
-Rabbi Marc Israel, Tikvat Israel, Rockville
As you all are already aware, this year Rosh Hashanah has intersected with Labor Day. My hope is that this intersection will provide us with a reminder that a better, sweeter, more justice-filled world is possible…
This year, congregations from across the state are participating in Labor on the Bimah and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to continue this tradition this morning with Hinenu by sharing about one ongoing labor justice campaign here in Maryland.
So many of the benefits that come with a majority of jobs today are due to the standards that were created by the labor movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. The 40 hour work week, minimum wage, paid vacation days, sick days, lunch breaks, employer-provided health care, and safety standards are just a few of the many achievements that have resulted from the ongoing labor movement. This movement continues to be an important catalyst for improving the working conditions for all workers in our country. Here in Maryland, we have the opportunity to achieve another long-sought goal for workers – that of passing an inclusive and progressive paid family and medical leave policy.
-Matan, Hinenu, Baltimore
So long as we in the Jewish community do our part to honor human dignity and work collaboratively to fulfill our community’s aspirations, so long will we remain faithful to the covenant established between Moses and all of the people of Israel.
-Rabbi Mitch Berkowitz, B’nai Israel, Rockville
Judaism teaches us, in numerous ways, that caring for ourselves and others is a religious obligation. When we recite the prayer for healing, or wish someone a refuah shleimah – complete healing – we are reminded of the duality of caring for both the body and the soul. When we fulfill the mitzvah of bikkur cholim, visiting sick people, we lessen the burden and suffering of those who are ill. Maimonides elaborated on this notion by putting healthcare first on his list of the ten most important communal services that a city must offer.
Paid Family and Medical Leave is an essential component of today’s healthcare because it enables us to care and heal completely. When an illness – or the illness of a loved one – prevents a person from earning the paycheck they need, that added stress and anxiety only complicates the recovery process. Whether you believe, as taught by Maimonides, that sickness separates us from divinity, or you simply notice how difficult it is to be part of a rich communal life when suffering and struggling economically, we all need time for caregiving, nurturing, and recovery so that we can be our full selves in community and connection with the Source of Life.
-Jeff, Adat Shalom, Bethesda
Attend a Time to Care event
Sunday, August 29 – Sunday, October 10, 2021
JUFJ leader and artist Debra Band has contributed artwork to the “Under One Roof” art exhibit at the Bender JCC in Rockville. Debra’s art is focused on the need for paid family and medical leave for all Marylanders, and it includes text from JUFJ leader Jill Alexander. The exhibit is open until October 10.
Thursday, September 30, 2021
8:00 PM on Zoom
JUFJ’s paid family and medical leave working group has been meeting since the spring to plan our participation in the Time to Care campaign. Join us for our next meeting to learn more and to help plan what’s next!
Sunday, October 17, 2021
2:00 PM on Zoom
Join JUFJers from across Maryland as we kick off our work in this new Maryland legislative session! At this event, you’ll meet other JUFJers in your state district, learn about our legislative priorities for the year, and how we anticipate the session to look this year (and will there be a special session before the end of this calendar year?!). We are looking forward to this being our most people-powered session yet, and it all starts at the Maryland Statewide Kickoff!
Tuesday, October 19, 2021
6:00 PM on Zoom
Join the Time to Care Coalition as we kick-off our campaign to get paid family and medical leave passed in the 2022 Maryland legislative session! The event will feature the Time to Care Act bill sponsors, Senator Antonio Hayes and Delegate Kris Valderrama, as well as other leaders in the fight for PFML. We’ll also share ongoing campaign activities and opportunities for people to get involved. This is the year for the Maryland legislature to pass the Time to Care Act and ensure that Marylanders don’t have to choose between their jobs and caring for themselves or their loved ones.