Religion & Jewish Life

Without unemployment insurance, synagogue employees lacking a safety net

NEW YORK (JTA) — When Manya Monson was laid off in 2010, she knew she wouldn’t receive unemployment benefits, but she figured she could manage. Then a few weeks later she found out she was pregnant.

“It made things very tough at that point,” Monson said.

Had she been employed at the local pharmacy, Monson would have been entitled to several months of unemployment insurance payments to help tide her over until she found a new job.

But Monson was the youth director at Adath Jeshurun, a Conservative synagogue in Elkins Park, Pa., and under federal law and the laws of most states, religious organizations are exempt from unemployment insurance taxes.

That leaves their employees without a guaranteed safety net if they are laid off.

“It’s really a shame because you do a lot of hard work when you deal with nonprofits. You generally do more than one person’s job,” said Monson, who did receive several months of severance from the synagogue and stressed that she harbors no ill will toward her former employer. “Then in the end, if there is an end, you usually get left out in the cold.”

In the wake of economic downturns, Jewish groups have spoken out often in support of expanded unemployment benefits. But none of the three major religious denominations requires — or even recommends — that its synagogues provide unemployment benefits to their workers.

As far as safety nets, the situation is much better for pulpit rabbis. In addition to being relatively well compensated, pulpit rabbis generally work under contract with their synagogues, which provides some measure of job security and guaranteed compensation in the case of a dismissal.

Lower-level employees without contracts can be let go at a moment’s notice, with no guaranteed severance or ability to collect unemployment.

In recent years, the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center has repeatedly cited Jewish values in urging Congress and the president to extend unemployment benefits. But while the RAC and the Union for Reform Judaism provide such benefits to their employees, only a minority of Reform synagogues appear to follow suit.

A 2012 survey of 108 synagogues by the movement’s National Association for Temple Administrators found that only 29 percent paid into unemployment.

“In the end, every synagogue has to make decisions, what works for them,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, the RAC’s director, adding that the movement cannot mandate its synagogues provide unemployment insurance.

The Conservative movement takes a similar line. A 2002 resolution by the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly called on Congress to extend unemployment benefits to help those impacted by the recession that was taking place at the time. But while the movement’s synagogue association, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, pays into unemployment for its own personnel, it neither mandates nor recommends the practice for its congregations.

“We cannot wade into the many and diverse waters of state and provincial law,” said the United Synagogue’s CEO, Rabbi Steven Wernick, adding that the organization encourages congregations to “go above and beyond where they can.”

It’s difficult to know how many of them do either by paying into the unemployment system, providing severance packages or both.

Besides the Reform survey, which drew responses from only a fraction of the movement’s nearly 900 congregations, leaders of the Conservative movement said they had no idea how many synagogues provide unemployment benefits, or even whether the practice is common.

The Orthodox Union, the main Orthodox synagogue umbrella, also had no idea and declined to comment further.

“It would cost a fortune,” said Robert Friedman, executive director at Adath Jeshurun, Monson’s former employer. “If it was always done there would have been a budget for it. But since it isn’t, it’s hard to put into the budget.”

To some Jewish leaders, that’s hardly an excuse.

In 2008, Rabbi Jill Jacobs authored a legal ruling adopted overwhelmingly by the Jewish law committee of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly requiring fair treatment of employees, specifically with respect to wages and allowing unionization. The ruling did not address unemployment specifically, but Jacobs told JTA she believes that is required by Jewish tradition, too.

“There are lots of things we budget in because of our values, and we also need to budget in fair salaries for our employees as part of our values,” said Jacobs, the executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. “I run a nonprofit organization, and we pay unemployment insurance and we budget it in. It doesn’t mean we have extra money to spend.”

Under the Federal Unemployment Tax Act, employers must pay 6 percent of an employee’s annual wages toward unemployment insurance. In practice, however, most states offer tax credits that can lower the rate to as little as 0.6 percent, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Labor. Religious groups are exempt from the law’s requirements but can opt in if they choose.

NATA, the group for Reform temple administrators, is working on a resolution on the issue for consideration at the association’s national gathering in October. But Livia Thompson, the group’s president, declined comment on its content.

Two of the Conservative movement’s leading voices on ethical issues declined to go as far as Jacobs in arguing that synagogues must pay into the unemployment insurance system, but they did assert that congregations should feel a religious obligation to stretch themselves.

“It is incumbent upon Jewish institutions to institute the highest ethical standards in relationship to their employees,” said Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob Congregation in Minnesota and the program director of Magen Tzedek, an effort to ensure ethical treatment for workers in the food industry, as well as animals.

Allen’s synagogue does not pay unemployment insurance, which the rabbi said he didn’t believe was necessary because two former employees had been able to claim benefits, anyway.

However, an employee of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development told JTA that if any non-paying synagogue employees had received benefits in the past, the payments were made in error.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, chair of the Conservative movement’s Jewish law committee and a professor of philosophy at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, said that unemployment insurance is “not only desirable but really an obligation that comes out of a Jewish tradition.”

Dorff said the tax is incumbent only on synagogues that can afford it.

“But if they grow and are able to do it later,” he said, “they do have a duty to do it.”