Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Op Ed: Balancing Budgets and Values

Around March 29, simultaneous articles in the JTA, The Forward, and The New York Jewish Week, were published that all basically told the same story: Marla Gilson, a Jewish professional with whom I have worked, was fired from her job while she was undergoing treatment for leukemia, because she was sick and would not be able to work for several months as she headed toward a bone marrow transplant.

I was shocked by the injustices enumerated in these articles. Then, shock turned into a lot of conflicting, messy feelings. I couldn't fall asleep that night and stayed up cleaning my apartment, organizing books and dvds, and doing basically anything to distract myself from the overwhelming feelings of sympathy, anxiety, and disappointment I was having. Because reading those articles was as if someone had taken some of my worst fears and anxieties and written them down. As someone in such a similar position, getting ready to work in the Jewish community for what I hope will be a long lifetime and having just worked on some personnel issues for the organization I serve on its board of directors, it hit close to home in every possible way, and I felt sick over the situation.

At some point in the middle of the night, I sat down to try to do some writing to sort out the surging emotions and thoughts. The next morning, I called the author of the JTA piece to explain the depth of my connection to this story, and told him that I'd like to write an opinion piece on the issue. He graciously helped me figure out what that might look like, and on April 10, the JTA published the following op-ed:

Op-Ed: Balancing budgets and values

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 Jewish values. Those values should shape our communal institutions, guide their missions and define their employment practices.

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.)

I know that publishing this piece is unlikely to help Marla's situation, but it did help me. Writing it was a very cathartic experience, particularly mid-radiation, when ones voice is taken away in so many ways. I wanted to share it with all of you, as I continue to explore the meta-theme of work/life/cancer balance, here on SWHAW.

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