How Women Can Have it All in Israel

When Yael Maizels was a research fellow at Cornell University, she knew she wouldn’t be having children in the US.

How Women Can Have it All in Israel 758 (photo credit: NEFESH B'NEFESH)
How Women Can Have it All in Israel 758
(photo credit: NEFESH B'NEFESH)
Twelve-hour work days were the norm, and women held off pregnancy until completing their PhDs.
But after making Aliyah and getting married, Maizels gave birth to her first child as a PhD student at Hebrew University. “My advisor said to me, ‘B’sha’a tova’ (at the right time) and I got three months maternity leave,” Maizels said.
Israel’s pro-natal policies and workplace laws do not simply protect pregnant women and mothers. They also encourage women to have children and build their careers simultaneously. From the planning stages to the time after the baby is born, Israeli society provides much support for a family to thrive. 
Planning For a Baby
If you’re a married woman without children, chances are you’ve been asked, “When are you going to have kids?” If you don’t have a good enough answer, the next question will be, “Well, what are you waiting for?” Though it may sound some- what abrupt to the American ear, this question underlines the many benefits that are in place to make it possible for anyone to have children in Israel.
According to Daniella Slasky, Nefesh B’Nefesh Director of Human Resources, there’s a well-known story of a woman who was fired from a company only to learn that she’d been pregnant at the time. Because of Israel’s strict laws protecting pregnant women, she legally had to be rehired.
As soon as a woman is five-months pregnant, she begins to reap many benefits that protect her in the workplace. These include 40 hours over the course of her pregnancy that may be spent out of the office getting pregnancy-related tests. Pregnant women are also exempt from working overtime.
“Israelis don’t want to lose good employees,” said Slasky. “Half of the employees are women so they want to accommodate them.”
Once pregnant, women have a straight-forward protocol to follow, which includes monthly tests, ultrasounds and follow-up appointments. Women can opt to do these at their local health insurance provider or with outside doctors, with costs at a minimum.
“I don’t think I paid a dime the entire time I was pregnant in Israel,” said Debbie Schuval, who gave birth to her fourth child about a year after making Aliyah with her family. “There are a lot of pregnant women in Israel so things run smoothly. You go through the process like everyone else.”
For couples facing fertility issues, the path to motherhood is often more complicated, but Israel has a lot of benefits in place to make the process as smooth as possible. While in the US, procedures like in vitro fertilization can cost between $10,000 to $15,000, in Israel, they are mostly subsidized. Women who need fertility treatments also have the right to receive extra time off from work.
In addition, Israel has support networks in place to help couples through the difficulties of dealing with fertility treatments. Through the Puah Institute, couples can receive medical and halachic counseling, as well as referrals and support, free of charge. Created in 1990, the Institute offers assistance to individual couples as well as to the public to spread awareness of fertility concerns through lectures, seminars and training courses.
Merkaz Panim, a center that provides emotional and physical support to women and couples facing fertility issues, is located off of Emek Refaim in Jerusalem. Found- ed in 2011, the center has offered an array of services including yoga, reflexology, marriage counseling, and movement therapy to over 700 couples at highly subsidized costs. “Israel is a society of children and childbearing, as well as hi-tech scientific advances,” said Rachel Hain, Merkaz Panim’s founder. “So it makes sense that the organization started here.”
Delivering In Israel
Last year, 171, 207 babies were born in Israel. With 27 hospitals in Israel, the system needs to run smoothly in order to keep up with the mothers.
In Israel, midwives, instead of doctors deliver the babies. According to Dr. Benny Chayen, the head of the Obstetrics and Gynecology Department at Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center in Bnei Brak, this makes a huge difference in ensuring the health of the mother and her baby.
While working as a chief resident in a hospital in New York, Chayen got used to seeing all types of patients come into the hospital ready to give birth. While uninsured patients who had not received prenatal care throughout their pregnancy were seen right away, the patients with private doctors often had to wait hours before their doctors arrived at the hospital to treat them.
“When there are midwives on shift, as well as doctors and even specialists, that never happens,” said Chayen. “Midwives do an excellent job, and there’s no reason for a doctor to do the delivery unless there’s a problem.” 
Senja Lauder, who gave birth to her fourth child in 2007 at Hadassah Ein Kerem, a year after making Aliyah from Teaneck, New Jersey, described her midwife as unbelievable. “I had never met her before, and she was so nurturing and caring,” she said. “While doctors are always running from room to room, my midwife was literally in the room with me for eight hours straight.”
In addition to offering courses for new mothers, Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center has hospital rabbis on staff whom they can consult with before medical procedures. The hospital also has a rabbinical medical committee, whose members give their viewpoint on medical issues that arise. In his 24 years at the hospital, Chayen does not remember one time when there was a clash between the committee and the doctors. “They just want to understand the issue, and then their ruling goes hand in hand with our recommendations,” Chayen said. Some hospitals also offer maternity hotels for the family after the mother has given birth. 
While staying in a spacious suite, the family can continue to receive support from nurses and doctors, as well as three meals a day and courses focused on nursing, nutrition, and bathing their newborns.
Caring For a Newborn
Unlike in the US, maternity leave is a right that all working mothers in Israel are granted after giving birth. Everyone is entitled to 14 weeks of paid leave from Bituach Leumi, Israel’s National Insurance Institute, and up to an additional 28 weeks of unpaid leave. Some companies even allow women to take off up to a year with the promise that their jobs will still be waiting for them when they return.
Maternity leave is a time for the mother to focus entirely on taking care of her newborn, without needing to consider the stress of bringing in an income.
According to Romi Sussman, a mother of six who lives in Neve Daniel, the experience of paid maternity leave in Israel is glorious. “For the first six weeks, you’re in a completely different state and then you have time to enjoy the little guy,” she said. “I would hang out with my friends who were not working or on maternity leave, go to the mall and figure out where we could nurse there, and enjoy the fact that I didn’t have to rush out of the house first thing in the morning as most parents usually do.”
During this time, families also start bringing their newborn to the Tipat Chalav, well-baby clinics that provide community public health benefits, including vaccinations, routine check ups, and health education. With staff that include physicians, dieticians, health consultants and social workers, the clinics are equipped to meet babies’ health needs, as well as provide advice to parents on sibling rivalry concerns and support for postpartum depression.
“The great thing is that the level of care is quite high and you don’t pay anything extra for it,” said Dina Katz, who works at the Tipat Chalav in Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef. “And not only do you not have to pay, but you get paid!”
From the time the baby is born until age 18, parents receive a subsidy for each child from Bituach Leumi. 
Going Back To Work
Returning to work after maternity leave can be a jarring experience for many mothers. Not only do they need to separate from their babies for the first time, but they also need to readapt to the workplace.
Israel has many daycare options including the Maon, the subsidized daycare for infants and babies, which has hours from early in the morning until the afternoon. The cost per month depends on the mother’s work day and salary. “The Maon is run through the employment department in order to encourage women to enter the workforce,” said Maizels.
In addition, mothers are entitled to take off one hour a day from work for four months after they return from maternity leave in order to nurse. Women cannot be fired from their jobs until sixty days after returning to work. Parents also may take off an additional eight days a year to care for a sick child.
Many offices offer flexible hours for parents, allowing them to leave at three and finish their work at night from home. “Between email and Skype and conference calling and every other gadget that allows you to work at home, there’s no reason why an employer shouldn’t be accommodating,” said Slasky. “If you don’t want to lose your amazing women workers, you’re going to want to.”
Schvual said that the experience of returning to work in the US after maternity leave was very different than it was in Israel. “When coming back to work in the US after maternity leave, there’s an expectation that everything is the same as it was before,” said Schuval. “People are not as flexible. I always felt a little insecure about taking time off to take my kids to the doctor.”
During the summer, there are three to seven kids in Schuval’s office in Israel on any given day. “At my work, everyone is a parent and has two to four kids,” said Schuval. “There’s an understanding that you can’t always do everything. Family is a big priority.”
In Israel, life continues after a baby is born, but laws ensure that parents can parent while achieving professional success.
After giving birth to her first three children while a PhD student in Israel—and taking three-month maternity leaves each time, Maizels found herself on the job market while pregnant with her fourth child. During her interview at a start-up, she let the staff know that she was three-months pregnant. It made no difference to the company. They were eager to have Maizels join the team.
“The culture in Israel is more accepting of working mothers,” said Maizels. “I think it also pushes people because you’re expected to do both, and there are things in place to make it possible.” 
Israel is a family-oriented society, offering special benefits to parents. Speak to an NBN Aliyah Advisor to find out what you can expect to receive. Contact [email protected]