Na’amat USA Pursues Legislation to Protect Women and Family Life

“It’s not easy to be a Jewish woman,” says Gloria Elbiling, president of Na’a mat USA. “There are just so many fronts to man.”

From running day care centers to rehabilitating women prisoners; from lobbying for women’s legal rights to absorbing Ethiopian olim; from operating vocational schools to counselling victims of violence in the home-Na’ amat has been manning more fronts than the most imaginative military strategist could contemplate.

“We can’t afford the luxury of not finding the room to support Israel, to support Jewish education, to support Jews in distress,” said Elbling, who was here from Pittsburgh for the organization’s recently concluded bi-annual Board of Directors meeting.

As a movement for women committed to the Labor Zionist tradition, Na’ amat USA, formerly Pioneer Women/Na’amat, has pursued legislation protecting women and family life both here and in Israel.

Most recently, it has been pushing for passage of a bill that would require American employers to grant unpaid “parental leave” to either mother or father of a newly-born, newly-adopted or seriously ill child.

AUTOMATIC THREE-MONTH LEAVE

Paid maternity leave in Israel is mandatory, Elbling observed in an interview. New mothers receive an automatic three-month leave and may opt for an additional nine months without pay as well.

The Parental and Medical Leave Act, sponsored by Reps. William Clay (D.Mo.) and Patricia Schroeder (D. Co.) and by Christopher Dodd (D. Conn.) in the Senate, would not require that a new parent receive a salary while on leave. But it goes further than the existing Israeli law by extending the right to fathers.

Together with Na’amat, the Israeli sister organization of Na’amat USA, the 60-year-old movement has pursued similar legislation in Israel, not only with regard to parental leave, but concerning other controversial issues such as abortion rights and the establishment of family courts that would have jurisdiction over aspects of family law currently in the hands of religious authorities.

HARD TO SHAKE MINDSETS

As to which of the two countries — Israel or the United States — has proved more fertile ground for the women’s movement, Elbling observed that Israel is “ahead of the U.S. in maternity leave, certainly, and they are ahead in day care.” But much of the remaining issues, she noted, are blocked by hard-to-shake mindsets.

“At first women really fought to become equals with the men in developing the country, and then, I would say, little by little, they went back into their traditional jobs and positions,” Elbling observed.

Women are being especially hard-hit by budget-cutting policies in both the U.S. and Israel, she said, since they often are more concentrated in lower level positions which are more susceptible to layoffs. Low-income women are often the hardest hit.

Na’ amat’s day care, educational and job training programs for disadvantaged families are aimed at encouraging women to acquire needed skills for the job market while providing the needed services for working mothers. The organization runs a network of 760 day nursery classes for 20,000 children in cities, development towns, moshavim and Arab and Druze towns and villages. Its day care centers are serving some 800 Ethiopian children.

Na’amat also offers vocational training to some 1,500 disadvantaged Jewish and Arab youth and operates three agricultural high schools, and 60 community centers which run a massive array of programs for women. That’s for starters.

For about two years, the organization has run a center in Tel Aviv on violence in the family and it plans to open another one soon in Jerusalem. From crisis counselling, the center in Tel Aviv has expanded its services to include longer term therapy and treatment.

WOMEN IN PRISON AIDED

Addressing a more limited clientele, Na’amat has recently reached out to women in prison — 99 in Israel all told, according to Elbling. The rehabilitation program at the women’s prison in Tel Aviv involves training in skills necessary for entering the job market, along with counselling by social workers and psychologists.

The main objective, Elbling said, is to help the prisoners, most of whom are serving terms for prostitution or drug-related offenses, to “increase their self-assuredness.”

For Elbling, who was elected president of the 50,000 member organization last November, Na’amat is the pinnacle of a 37-year career of volunteer work in Jewish and Zionist organizations. A grandmother of three, she has long considered herself a “professional volunteer” — a title now discarded in favor of “volunteer executive.”

Whatever her title, she has manned so many fronts that her name has penetrated the outer boundaries of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh. After her election to Na’amat’s presidency, she returned from a recent trip to Israel to find that the Mayor had honored her in one of the city’s biggest intersections with a temporary street sign in her name.

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