How to Balance Career and Family? Jewish Groups Grapple with Dilemma

As a young Boston politician, Marty Linsky would rush home to read his kids a bedtime story before dashing off again to an evening work meeting. “The fact that that marriage and that family busted is no surprise to me,” given the lack of time and care he devoted to them, Linsky told 80 people, mostly women, gathered recently at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan to discuss the challenges Jewish communal workers face in balancing work and home life.

The discussion, called “24/7: Is it time to change the way we work?” marked the first conference of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, a group that aims to promote gender equity in the Jewish community.

However, “it’s not a women’s issue,” said Linsky, who teaches about leadership, the press and politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is working with the group on creating a gender-equity guide for Jewish groups. “It’s an issue about high performance.”

Judging by the discussion at the conference, for many in the Jewish community, workloads have reached crisis proportions.

“For many people, work can really take over,” said Meryle Mahrer Kaplan, a panelist and vice president of advisory services for Catalyst, a consulting firm that helps companies build more inclusive work environments and tries to advance professional opportunities for women.

Staying competitive in the global economy often means keeping in touch with clients in different time zones, which can lead to long workdays, Kaplan said.

But there’s a “window of opportunity” today to change working modes, since many people are concerned about work-life balance and will choose jobs based on those values, Kaplan told JTA.

“People want life sanity,” she said. “Young men who saw their fathers work like crazy don’t want to work the same way and are paying attention to that.”

Jewish communal workers face the same struggle, according to Shifra Bronznick, Advancing Women Professionals’ founding president. Top leadership positions require such long workdays that many now consider those jobs undesirable, she said.

“The Jewish community has lagged behind other spheres in looking at this issue, which is paradoxical given how powerfully we value family, community and volunteerism,” Bronznick said.

At risk is Jewish organizations’ ability to recruit and retain top professionals, particularly among the younger generation, some of whom demand a better work-life balance, panelists said.

Flexibility in the workplace — the option to telecommute or work less than full-time, for example — is a key element in advancing professional opportunities for women and providing the life-work balance many people are seeking.

There are alternatives, Bronznick and others say.

For example, Advancing Women Professionals worked with the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services to produce a brochure on flexible work opportunities for its employees, and an internal public education program on the same subject.

At Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, Advancing Women Professionals coordinated a task force of diverse Hillel professionals who reported on ways to raise awareness of work-life balance.

The report was sent to Hillel employees and top volunteers, and Hillel updated its personnel code to encourage staff to “be responsive to their family, religious and personal commitments.”

There also are corporate examples.

Kaplan talked about Marriott Hotels, which found a way for its managers to shave five hours off their workweek by cutting overlapping shifts.

Marriott’s success in shrinking the workweek is an especially good example for others, Kaplan said, because the hotel chain is a 24/7 operation where service can’t be compromised.

Kaplan says workplaces can focus on rewarding teamwork to “spread the load around.” Employees need time off to revive themselves, which helps make them more efficient, she said.

While it’s helpful for a company to have flexible policies on its books, there’s still the issue of office culture, where a gap often exists between policy and practice.

For many employees, it’s tough to summon the nerve to take advantage of company policies.

As head of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford from 1992 to 1999, Cindy Chazan was the first woman to lead a fairly large federation.

She asked, and was granted, accommodation as a working mother — flexibility to go to her children’s school or to work from home if necessary.

But in the end she didn’t take advantage of the flexible schedule the federation offered her, Chazan said.

“I was always worried that if I pushed the issue that they so generously offered,” she would be shirking her responsibility, she told the conference.

“I never, ever wanted them to say, ‘Why did we hire a woman for the job?’ ” said Chazan, now the director of alumni and community development for the Wexner Foundation.

Especially for Jewish communal workers, it’s critical to set boundaries, she said.

As a Jewish communal worker, “there is a sense of the community having some ownership over you,” she said. “You might consider yourself off, having dinner with your family, for example, but they might consider you available and accessible.”

And there’s added pressure for women, she said. Even in Chazan’s marriage, the “primary responsibility for making sure that everything goes OK at home is mine,” she said.

But others say putting in long hours pays off.

“You can work as smart as you want but there’s a certain level of connection you make by being places and by being there for people and by being accessible to people,” Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, told JTA in a phone interview.

Shrage, who begins his day at 4 a.m. with exercise, followed by paperwork and a breakfast meeting, often ends days at Jewish communal events and then sleeps just four hours.

Shrage calls his schedule a personal choice.

“It’s not evil to work the way I work” and it’s “not evil to work less,” he said — but it could be important to his success.

“Most successful executives are working very, very hard,” he said. “If they’re doing it just for their businesses, how much more so should we do it for the Jewish community.”

Despite his hectic schedule, there is one day that Shrage rests.

“I have Shabbat, which is a real lifesaver,” he said.

Several audience members suggested that Jewish organizations that ask their professionals to compromise their family lives are in breach of Jewish values.

The “issue of hypocrisy comes up very quickly,” said Nessa Rapoport, an author of Jewish books.

When interviewing people for Jewish organizational jobs, Carol Smokler, a board member of the Jewish Women’s Archive, among other Jewish leadership positions, asks candidates whether they would take calls on Shabbat.

That helps her determine “where their Jewish values are, not only where their mental health is,” she said.

In Smokler’s eyes, at least, it’s a positive when applicants say they’re not available on Shabbat.

Otherwise, she said, “We’re asking people to burn themselves out.”

Others expressed consternation that Jewish organizations require their employees to work long hours.

For Bronznick, the issue of work flexibility goes beyond simply improving employees’ quality of life. It’s also a tool that allows the Jewish community to ask itself, “What do we value? Who are our heroes?,” she said.

If everyone was putting more emphasis on their personal lives and their communities, and not just work, “we would all have a better world,” she said.

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