This article appeared in the “In Jerusalem” supplement of the Jerusalem Post on March 25, 2016.
Balancing motherhood and careers, with the help of Tzohar
By Hannah Katsman
Since the early days of the kibbutz, Israeli mothers have been working outside the home. Yet the conflict between motherhood and career has become more acute in recent years, as women take on higher-level, management positions.
A group of women from the national- religious sector, where women marry young and often have large families, met in January to discuss the topic at an event sponsored by the rabbinic organization Tzohar.
The panel, “Motherhood, Careers and Guilty Consciences,” took place at the Petah Tikva Art Museum. Tzofia Hirshfeld, Tzohar’s director of external communications, sought out female professionals from the sector who excelled in the fields of academics, the arts, medicine, journalism and society.
Tzohar trains Orthodox rabbis to perform weddings, funerals and other religious rites for Israel’s secular population.
They strictly follow Jewish law, yet avoid alienating secular Jews from religious practice. According to Hirshfeld, Tzohar’s 420 rabbis throughout the country perform 4,500 weddings each year, about 10 percent of all weddings performed through the rabbinate.
“We held the event both to recognize the wives for their contribution to their husbands’ volunteer efforts,” Hirshfeld explained, “and to energize and empower them on a personal level.”
Hirshfeld opened the panel with the statistic that 74% of married Israeli mothers are employed, and giving some insights on the Torah’s view of work. In Genesis, God assigns work to Adam as a punishment. Yet the Torah also presents the work of the building the Temple, as described in the Book of Exodus, as a source of inspiration.
Panelist Yehudit Shilat, a founder of the Takana forum that addresses sexual harassment and abuse within the religious community, suggested that the conflict is entrenched in society.
“Why do mothers who don’t work out of the home say that they don’t work?” she asked. “The panel should have asked why most women have two careers. There is constant conflict.”
The reason, Shilat argued, is that we romanticize motherhood instead of seeing it as a job like any other.
“According to the Mishna, a mother can even hire someone to breastfeed her baby. Motherhood has meaning, but it doesn’t have to be so extreme. Society creates the dilemma by making motherhood the essence of a woman’s existence, and we then judge ourselves on that basis. We don’t stay up at night If our careers are not perfect.”
Dr. Chana Katan, an author and specialist in gynecology, obstetrics, and fertility, differed.
“I see the conflict as internal, and not connected to society,” Katan said. “The kids won’t lose out if a mother chooses a career, but experiences of motherhood cannot be replaced. Motherhood is an essential part of a woman’s essence, and I don’t want it taken from me.”
Katan trained as a doctor while raising 11 children, and found the 36-hour shifts away from her children traumatic.
“Back then, all of my friends were at home much more than I,” she said. “But today, mothers pile on more careers.”
Hili Moyal, editor of the women’s magazine Nashim, described her evolution as a mother.
“My mother was a career woman and I wanted to do the opposite,” she explained. “I had an ideal of staying home with my children and did so with fussy babies and postpartum depression. Eventually I started working from home, and it took me even longer to consider leaving the house for work.”
Now, Moyal finds that she enjoys the time with her children much more than when she was home with them full time.
“I turn off the phone. It’s also nice not to live with overdraft. Instead of talking about the price we pay, we should look at the gains.”
Prof. Yaffa Silbershatz, on the National Committee for Planning and Budgets in Higher Education, who was born in 1953, has seen a dramatic shift.
“My husband was born in Europe, and he expects the food to be served to him,” she explained. “Tonight I left him dinner, but he wasn’t happy about it. Ours was the first generation to be born in Israel, and no one taught us how to both go out to work and be traditional.”
She sees her own children having a more equal partnership with their partners.
“The discussion has changed, for better or worse. I feel that we are progressing to the point where the dilemma belongs not only to the wife, but to the couple.”
Moyal noted that Israel is still a very patriarchal society. “When my husband picks up the children from kindergarten, people tell him what a good father he is and how his wife works very hard.”
Chava Divon, screenwriter for the popular sitcom Srugim, agreed that fathers today are more involved, but mothers don’t want to give up on motherhood.
The only panelist to bring up the status she enjoys as a career woman, she noted, “Once I got dragged out of the house, my high profile gave me a new identity. It’s hard to give it up.”
Shilat, like the other panelists with older children, recalled a time when mothers had it easier. “I worked from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and went to sleep from 2 to 4 p.m. Then I went out. Nowadays there are no jobs like that. All my friends were teachers. In the Western world, there are no boundaries, and it’s a crime for families. Children need someone to be at home.”
Shilat would like to see a law that allows one parent of dual-career couples to end work at 3 p.m.
“Our current model, based on the US’s eight-hour work day, only fits a society with one main earner in the household. It’s fatal to this dilemma.”
Katan urged young mothers to set priorities and get help, especially for the difficult afternoon hours, but not to forget the big picture.
“Choose a career where you can decide when to invest more or less time,” Katan advised. “It’s not black or white. But a woman who misses her chance to give birth loses out.”
After the panel, Celia Sherwin, a coach on balance for women, provided practical tips to the audience.
“Women set their standards too high,” she warned. “It’s no longer enough for women to be everywhere, but they have to be the best at it. And it’s not just working and mothering – women have to eat healthy, and work out. They are told they should be able to juggle everything easily, yet they find themselves dropping the balls and feeling guilty.”
Sherwin passed out a chart with eight areas, including career, couplehood, health and fitness, personal growth, friendships, culture, family and financial stability. She suggested rating each area according to level of satisfaction from 1 to 5, then picking one area to work on effecting change.
The evening ended on a light note, with a performance by the religious female stand-up artist Noya Mendel.
Yael Maizels, a mother of four from Ariel and biology instructor at the local university, came because of her husband’s work with Tzohar.
“I listened closely to Silbershatz, as we are both academics,” Maizels told In Jerusalem after the event. “Young women in academia, especially the sciences, have a more severe conflict than most women.
About 70% of the students in my department are women, but only 30% of the professors. The ones who want to raise families drop out early on. In the humanities, it’s possible to start later, like [wife of Har Etzion yeshiva head Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein] Tova Lichtenstein, who received a doctorate in social work after her children were grown.”
Lichtenstein went on to have an influential career in academia and public policy.
Katan provided an optimistic note for struggling young mothers, reminding them that this stage eventually ends.
“My relationship with my adult children is the greatest reward.”