Israel has a state-wide maternity leave policy. After a woman gives birth, the National Insurance Institute pays for three months of leave; that is, the woman continues to earn whatever she had been earning but the NII underwrites it.
After this period has elapsed, the woman can elect to continue her leave for three additional months; these months will be unpaid, but by law her job will be protected.
This is a far cry from Sarah’s experience of maternity leave. Because Sarah was always employed in America’s private sector, her leave had to be worked out individually with her employers.
Though her leaves did get to the point where with our fifth and last child, Elie, she had a three-month leave, her first three leaves, from a small business in Atlanta where she was one of three employees, were quite short.
When we tell our kids that Sarah went back to work on Monday, Jan. 18, 1988, after giving birth to Nathan just six and a half weeks earlier on Dec. 4, they stare at us in disbelief.
I decided to explore this topic with the three members of our family who already have first-hand experience with maternity leave: my daughter, Ruthie, and my daughters-in-law Avia and Hadar.
Ruthie, 33, in-house lawyer for a high-tech company and mother to Gili, 9 months. Ruthie speaks about her maternity leave as “priceless time with Gili that won’t come back again.” Ruthie says, “Israeli society supports women taking off half a year; it’s rare for a woman to go back significantly earlier than that.” Indeed, when a colleague of Ruthie’s went on maternity leave four months into Ruthie’s own leave, requiring the firm to hire an outside replacement) no one even hinted that Ruthie should return early.
For most of her leave, Ruthie lived in a rental apartment in Tel Aviv, a city known for its pampering of new mothers. There are daily “Mommy and me” activities such as arts and crafts, physical therapy and massages, and nursing and sleep clinics.
While Ruthie said that some of the new mothers would attend these activities daily, she usually prioritized going to her gym, which offered a monthly “mothers’ group” membership: The mothers would bring their babies to their workouts, and the babies would either be with a babysitter in an adjoining room or be put in the middle of the gym with a babysitter hovering nearby at the ready.
Ruthie enjoyed all the attention she got strolling around Tel Aviv with Gili, though, especially in the winter, people would constantly stop her to give her advice concerning how better to dress Gili. On the bus, people would always play with Gili, touch her “pulkies.” “Israelis love babies,” Ruthie says.
Hadar, 29, an associate director at the Shalva Center for Persons with Disabilities is mother to Yehuda, 4.5; Ayala, 3; and Itamar, born Sept. 9. The first thing Hadar tells me is that maternity “leave” is not in fact a “vacation,” though Hebrew uses the same word for both: “You have to care for a baby who screams and who needs to nurse and be changed; it’s not working at work but it’s not a vacation, either, especially for the first three months.”
Hadar feels that the state should underwrite the entire six months, rather than just the first three, because “a kid at 4-months-old is helpless; it can’t even crawl and its place is with its mom. What mother is going to put a 4-month-old in daycare [ahem, ahem], and so you’re forcing mothers to take those second three-months upon themselves.”
After giving birth to Yehuda, Hadar would often schlep into Jerusalem from her home 40 minutes away. There at Cinema City, along with about 70 other mothers and their babies, she would partake in various activities as well as occasional screenings of what was currently being shown at the movie house.
Hadar describes a more difficult experience after giving birth to Ayala: “With Ayala, I had to nurse as well as deal with Yehuda, and there were also quarantine periods because this was during the coronavirus.”
Avia, 34, senior staff person at a RegTech company, is mother to Noam, almost 5, and Lavi, 2. Like Hadar, Avia commented upon the term maternity “vacation”—“I think it’s ironic that they call it that,” she says. “It’s more of a time for the repair of body and soul.” Avia says that it’s not a coincidence that both she and Hadar questioned the use of the word “vacation,” whereas Ruthie did not. “With a first child it is indeed more of a vacation, but after I gave birth to Lavi, when Noam was around I had a second shift, and this certainly made it less ‘vacationy.’”
Avia took the full six months with both Noam and Lavi, explaining, “I was ready to go back earlier, but I felt that they were too young for daycare.” On the other hand, she says, “I could never think of going back six weeks or even two months after giving birth. That does not seem natural. Even at six months, when it came time to put Noam in childcare, it was difficult emotionally. It was hard; I was sad and worried. With Lavi, I already was counting down the days.”
If part of Israel’s national maternity-leave policy is to encourage women to give birth, Avia’s words suggest that the policy has an effect.
“We work very hard and there are not a lot of opportunities to go on a long break from work, and I know that I won’t get another chance at this except if I have another kid. In Israeli high-tech it’s so accepted for women to go on leave for six months that there is a policy also for fathers to get a few weeks or even a few months off. This encourages couples, and it’s great.”
I think it’s great, too.
TEDDY WEINBERGER is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.