By Hannah Weilbacher
When I started organizing with Jews United for Justice’s Paid Family Leave Campaign last September as a new AVODAHnik, I needed to communicate a story that crystalizes why I care about the issue of Paid Family Leave. I needed to be able to talk about the importance of this campaign and the urgency of the need for paid family and medical leave in DC. But I didn’t have a story or a reason – I cared about paid family no more and no less than the many other economic justice causes today. I haven’t had a baby; I haven’t had to take extended time off from work or school for my own medical reasons; my immediate family has been relatively healthy in recent memory – I’ve been too lucky to have a story that I could share about why I am personally invested in paid family leave.
It turns out everyone has a story about why caring for themselves or their families is crucial for the health of our society and ourselves. Everyone can share a moment when paid time off could have, at the very least, eased a burden.
I was chatting with my parents over the phone about this campaign one evening in the fall when they opened my eyes to our family’s stories. They shared the moments of uncertainty that had been a huge part of their parenting journey, but that they had shielded from my little sister and me. I heard from them how, when my mom had breast cancer when I was in elementary school, we had enough money to keep up with the bills because we were lucky – lucky that my dad could take time off to care for my mother, lucky that my mother’s job let her take unpaid time off and keep her job, and lucky that my grandfather had recently died leaving us with some inheritance.
Lucky? No one should be lucky to work for someone who lets them take time to take care of their wife or themselves. That should be a right.
About a month ago, the Jews United for Justice volunteer leaders put together a Kickoff to celebrate the launch of our efforts to win Paid Family Leave for all DC workers and residents. I saw nearly a hundred people from our community come together to learn about this crucial but complicated policy – and to share their stories of why this matters to them. I heard from people who were motivated by a heart-wrenching story of not being able to afford time off when a family member needed their care. I heard from a soon-to-be mother planning excitedly and anxiously for her baby’s future. I heard stories of when a sudden, serious issue rattled somebody’s sense of health and invulnerability. Many expressed gratitude for their employers when, in these moments, they provided leave – paid or unpaid. I share that gratitude for all of the employers who go out of their way to take care of their employees. But I can’t help but pause when I hear that gratitude articulated. How is taking care of your workers not the norm? Why do we let ourselves, our families, our neighbors make these impossible choices?
My Jewish social justice activism has taught me over and over again to see the potential in idealism and the reality of pragmatic solutions. Paid family leave is both idealistic and practical. Not only is paid leave good business – I’ll let you read why here – but isn’t guaranteed paid leave such a Jewish issue? The more I explore the connections between Judaism and workplace justice, the more connections I find. Our rich, deep, ancient tradition not only commands us to care for our parents, but also commands us to take care of our neighbors, people who are living in poverty, people who are sick, and ourselves. That same tradition commands employers to treat their workers justly. The Talmud provides specific guidance on how to treat workers – like not holding onto your employees wages for more than a specified period of time. And the Torah shows through its narratives the broad and clear obligation to treat yourself and your communities with justice and love. All of this, furthered by our imperative as Jews to work towards tikkun olam – repairing the world – makes paid family and medical leave a beautifully Jewish policy.
Paid family and medical leave is so connected to my goals for myself and my family’s needs. It’s so connected to the Jewish values I hold and that AVODAH encourages me to lean into every day. And organizing with Jews United for Justice has led me to such an amazing community of strong activists dedicated to the health of our city. For myself, for my family, and for my community, I’m ready to win this campaign.
Hannah Weilbacher is from Merion, Pennsylvania, attended Oberlin College, and is a Community Organizer at Jews United for Justice.