Jewish Journal

Who’s Watching the Children?

Despite a large number of dual-income Jewish households, child-care services remain a low priority among community organizations.

by Wendy J. Madnick

Posted on Aug. 31, 2000 at 8:00 pm

Lillian Kossacoff wishes there were better childcare resources for her daughter, Eden Rose.

Lillian Kossacoff wishes there were better childcare resources for her daughter, Eden Rose.

It's finally here. Parents across the city and valleys can be heard breathing a sigh of relief as their children return to the familiar routine of school. No more August Angst, wondering what to do in that stretch of time between camp and classroom.

But for working parents, the challenge of finding effective solutions to before- and after-school childcare remains. According to the 1997 demographic survey conducted for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the number of traditional families with a parent at home with the children is estimated at just under 23 percent, meaning that in more than three quarters of Jewish households, a single parent or both parents work either full- or part-time. The high numbers of L.A. Jews employed as professionals or in creative fields, such as the film industry, in addition to the increase in the number of women in the workplace over the last two decades, raises the question: Who will watch the children?

For many dual-income couples, the solution is simple and clear: A live-in babysitter. Sherman Oaks residents Sandra Kossacoff, 39, a commercial real estate attorney who works from home, and her husband, Howard Fullman, 45, a gastroenterologist for Kaiser Permanente, have had three such housekeepers since the birth of their oldest son, Alex, now 9. They feel it is the best solution for their busy lives: Both Alex and his brother Casey, 6, attend Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge. Both boys play soccer, basketball and baseball after school and take piano lessons; Alex also swims competitively for a team at Stephen S. Wise synagogue. Sandra and Howard agree that all this, plus their own busy work schedules, would be impossible without live-in help.

"Flexibility was the main reason we chose to have someone live with us," Sandra said. "Despite the fact I am working from home, I still wanted to present a professional environment to my clients. So if I have a conference call coming in or have documents to prepare, I know I can work uninter-rupted and the boys will still have their routine. Yet I am also able to greet the kids when they come home from school and attend their school and outside activities without feeling guilty or pressured [to be back at the office]."It's not ideal. There is a certain loss of privacy. But overall, the assistance, especially in the morning when we are all struggling to get out the door, has really outweighed the disadvantages," she said.

But what about the less affluent or those with very young children? For these working parents, like Sandra's sister Lillian Kossacoff, the situation is not so simple. Lillian, 36, a freelance photojournalist, works two days a week for a local newspaper while her husband, Brett Barrett, works for Kaiser Medical Center in Woodland Hills as an emergency medical technician. Neither are in high-paying jobs; in addition, Brett can get only 32 hours per week at Kaiser, so early this year he took on a second job at a home furnishings store. Their two-bedroom Simi Valley condominium barely accommodates the couple and their two daughters, Talia Esther, 2, and Eden Rose, 2 months, and could not be stretched to fit a live-in sitter even if their budget allowed for one. Instead, Lillian and Brett take the girls to a family day care on weekdays and patch together what help they can when one or both works weekends.

"I opted for Debbie, our day-care provider, for several reasons. One, because she was Jewish, and two, because she was flexible with her time," Lillian said. "A lot of day-care centers are rigid - they have certain minimum requirements in terms of a schedule, and Debbie was not that way. And I preferred someone Jewish because I really didn't want to have to deal with having Christmas [at a center] and having to explain it to my daughter."

Lillian said her biggest headache is finding a reliable sitter on the weekends.

"The main problem we have is I work on Sundays and so does Brett, and Debbie is only open Monday through Friday until 4:30 in the afternoon," she explains. "I can't tell you how many assignments I've had to turn down because they want me to shoot at 5:30 and I just can't. I would love to have somebody come to my house to keep the routine up with my kids, but so far I haven't been able to find anybody reliable and willing to work the part-time hours I have to offer."

Lillian said she feels constant pressure to meet the high expectations of the Jewish community in terms of professional success but prefers to work less, live a simpler life and spend as much time with her children as possible.

"I work part time because I made the choice to nurse my daughter, and to me nursing does not just mean pumping it into a bottle and having someone else feed her," Lillian said. "Also, I chose to have children later in life, and I am going to cherish this time. I wanted to be a mommy, and I knew it was going to be at great sacrifice to my career. To tell the truth, I like working. I miss the creativity. It's not like I'm happy to put my career on hold, but this is the choice I have made. Sometimes I wonder if it would be better to put my kids in day care and realize my full potential as a photographer. But I want to give my children the best I can possibly give them, and I think being at home is important for them."Lillian said she wishes she had a Jewish resource to turn during those difficult times when she cannot find a sitter.

"I don't think the community sees it as [its] responsibility, but it would be wonderful to be able to use a Jewish agency for a referral, even something as simple as an 'Adopt-a-Bubbe' program where an older woman whose children are grown up could come babysit," Lillian said. "I did call the Reform synagogue here in Simi once. They gave me the names of a couple of teenagers, but I need something more; a trustworthy adult who can care for my children the way I do."

Like Lillian, other parents have expressed disappointment that the Jewish community, which seems to provide an agency for every category from college students to religious Zionists, does next to nothing to address the issue of child care in any formal way. Perhaps it is because of mixed feelings about the issue of child care; after all, Judaism has maintained a long history of putting family first, work second.

However, statistics show that given a choice, Jewish parents prefer to utilize Jewish resources. According to informa-tion gathered by Phillips & Herman Demographic Research, 63 percent of all Jewish children ages 6 through 12 are enrolled in some type of after-school program, and for three-quarters of those children, that means a program provided by a Jewish organization. Many Los Angeles parents turn to their local Jewish Community Center for help once their children reach preschool age; others begin enrolling their tots in synagogue preschools as soon as they reach the magic age, usually 2 years, 9 months.

But for parents of infants and toddlers, appropriate resources are pitifully lacking. The JCC maintains a referral service of sorts, a list of people providing day care in their homes, but the program is in transition until a new director can be found. The interim program head, Ellen Green, was an associate director at the Valley Cities center and was recently hired to take over the Westside JCC's early childhood education department. Green could not confirm when the last time was that any of the day-care situations on the JCC's provider list had been inspected and admitted that of the calls she had received in the past month asking for referrals, no parents had called back to say they had found a day care they would use.

"We know the need is there - some people just feel more comfortable going to a Jewish home," Green said. "At many JCCs in other parts of the country. they start accepting the children at a younger age. They have infant care in the centers, and then the children continue throughout, but it's never been done in Los Angeles, mostly because we lack the space. That's why this [referral] program started, to give people some resource."

Jewish Family Service (JFS), which provides a plethora of services including referrals for elder care, offers no such service for child care. However, Helaine Esterson, director of JFS' Conejo Valley office, says although the agency does not make referrals to specific providers, she often helps give parents guidelines about what to look for in a caregiver.

"I help them gain an understanding of what they need, what might be some special considerations if they are divorced or don't have much money available," Esterson said. "People often don't realize all the things they need to consider to make the right decision. So I help them evaluate their situation to find the best solution for them."

Risa Munitz-Gruberger, director of the Whizin Institute for Jewish Family Life at the University of Judaism and co-author of two books on parenting, said the Jewish community could do more to ensure that working parents have the tools they need to get optimum child care.

"I don't think it's a Jewish problem as much as it is a world problem, the reality of the world we live in today. But as Jews it becomes more complicated, because so much of Judaism revolves around family," Munitz-Gruberger said, giving as an example Jewish day schools that discourage after-school care. "I would venture to guess they are trying to push the children to be with their parents, and when school is over, it's over. There shouldn't be a 'second shift' for kids. But that creates a Catch-22 for parents. People want to be able to afford to send their children to Jewish schools, which creates dual-income parents, which creates a child care need that comes full circle when the parents ask the day school to offer before- and after-school care and [the school] will not."

Munitz-Gruberger said she feels Jewish agencies have an obligation to help parents find child-care solutions.

"We have in the Jewish community lots of working couples raising children and trying to figure out the best approach, and many people have financial issues on top of that," she said. "If we as a community considered ourselves sophisticated and savvy, we would get on the bandwagon and see that our leadership focused on the issue of child care."

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