WASHINGTON (JTA) — The egregious treatment of Marla Gilson by her employers, the Association of Jewish Aging Services, in the wake of her cancer diagnosis struck some deeply personal notes with me. I am a colleague of Marla’s; a Jewish communal professional; a board member of a Jewish organization; and a person with cancer facing a bone marrow transplant and extended medical leave from my job in the coming months.
Through my nearly five years in and out of treatment, my employers — first the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and now the National Council of Jewish Women — have been shining examples of Jewish organizations guided by progressive and Jewish values. Both organizations have chosen to exercise the values they espouse: supporting me through a difficult experience without wavering in their commitment to their own missions.
These commitments have manifested in my supervisors working closely with me to maximize the times in which I am able to work the long and full hours of a Washington lobbyist, and accommodating with grace those times when my schedule requires more flexibility. These reasonable accommodations have allowed me to continue to do the meaningful and effective work that advances the organizational mission. Working to advance causes that I believe in, on behalf of organizations that inspire me, motivates me to fight through my illness and ensures that I can continue to earn the livelihood and benefits upon which my life depends.
My experience also has given me a great deal to consider as a person serving on the board of directors of a Jewish organization. With Passover approaching, too many stories — those published in major community papers and those shared over coffee or lunch with colleagues — remind me that we in the Jewish community sometimes are each other’s Pharaohs. To honor the freedom for which our ancestors struggled, those of us in a position of power over the livelihoods of others must be radically just. I try to be mindful of the core principles that should inform how we, tasked with the sacred responsibility of governance and direction of Jewish communal organizations, must act.
We are instructed by the prophet Isaiah to be an "or l’goyim," a light unto the nations. To me, this is a call to both individuals and our community to model the highest ideals in the ethical treatment of our fellow human beings and our world. We have to make our employment standards even higher than those established by our country’s civil rights laws. We must protect workers when they become ill, regardless of whether Jewish communal institutions are required to adhere to, or are exempted from, those laws.
We must reject the false dichotomy that argues that an organization can either treat its employees with dignity and compensate them appropriately, or it can thrive financially and otherwise. Indeed, the former is required to accomplish the latter. Jewish organizations must strive to be better than the dangerous race-to-the-bottom-line workplace practices of too many Jewish and non-Jewish employers, private and public, that the current political climate has yielded and the current economic climate has excused.
In my work at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the National Council of Jewish Women, I have learned that there is power in organizing, in advocating and in asserting
Let us be thankful for the many wonderful employers in our community who show us that it is possible to balance our budgets and our values.
(Elissa Froman is a senior legislative associate at the National Council of Jewish Women in Washington.)