You’d probably expect the oldest Jewish congregation in America to be conservative, resistant to change, and (as a byproduct) intolerant. But Shearith Israel, which was founded in 1654 and was the only Jewish congregation in New York for almost 175 years afterward, portrays itself on its website as a welcoming community that “values tradition, kindness, and inclusivity.” Unfortunately, it seems two of those values were in short supply when the synagogue’s leaders found out that Alana Shultz (below), who had worked as the congregation’s program director for eleven years, had gotten pregnant prior to her wedding.
According to a lawsuit that Shultz filed on September 22, she told her boss that she was pregnant right before she left for her honeymoon. Shultz alleges that when she returned from her trip, she learned that she’d been fired, and that her six-week severance package would not include medical coverage. Shultz says that Rabbi Meir Soloveichik refused to look at her once he found out.
“Shockingly, rather than demonstrating inclusion and tolerance, defendants callously fired Ms. Shultz for her apparent failure to adhere to their religious morals, at a time when she was most vulnerable — six and a half pregnant months pregnant, visibly showing and in critical need of medical insurance,” Shultz attorney Douglas Wigdor said in the 13-page complaint.
The congregation “failed miserably in their attempt to merge traditional Judaism with modern civil laws,” the lawsuit charges.
Shultz’s severance also required her to keep quiet about her termination and refrain from speaking negatively about Shearith Israel. But with weak financial and moral incentives to obey the congregation’s demands, Shultz hired a lawyer instead. She’s accusing the congregation of violating the Family Medical Leave Act as well as New York state and city employment laws.
As soon as the congregation realized that Shultz might get them in trouble — with the law and with their reputation — they immediately rehired her. Her picture and bio are still up on Shearith Israel’s website. Instead, the congregation claims that they never fired Shultz in the first place. She just hasn’t been showing up to work.
In the [September 25 press] release, the Orthodox congregation said it did nothing wrong and that Shultz, its program director, has not been fired.
“She continues to remain employed in the exact same title, receiving the exact same compensation and benefits that she had been receiving all along,” the release said. “Her claim of loss is fabricated and inaccurate. She has received (and continues to receive to this very day) every penny, including for health benefits — even though she has not been to work since August 14th.”
Shearith Israel complains that Shultz purposely filed her lawsuit on Yom Kippur — one of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar, and one of the busiest times of year for a synagogue — depriving them of the opportunity to respond to it immediately. Malicious moves like this could undermine Shultz’s case, and legal experts say she’ll have a tough time in general, since the congregation has the right to fire her for violating the moral precepts of their religious organization.
Even if Shultz’s lawsuit fails, the bad press could still have a negative impact on Shearith Israel. But the congregation has never been as forward-thinking as it wants to appear. The emergence of Conservative Judaism in the late 19th century (despite the name, more progressive than Orthodox) nearly tore the congregation apart. Over a century later, it seems that Shearith Israel isn’t any more in touch with the modern world.
(Image via Shearith Israel)