Pass the Vacation, Please!

The debate on whether or not to emigrate to Israel from the United States is often framed as a quality of life issue: The cost of cars is compared with the cost of Jewish day schools, and living in a country that shuts down for Yom Kippur is given a price tag. But there is a non-financial component to the lifestyle debate that often gets left out of the equation: Vacation days. This is a crucial component, because, unlike the cost of cars and the average salaries, fixing the issue of vacations in Israel does not require macro-economic changes and complicated policy plans.

America is one of the only countries in the Western world with no federally mandated number of paid vacation days. In Israel, workers are legally entitled to 11 vacation days – scheduled to go up to 12 in 2017. However, America has a clear advantage over Israel when it comes to federal holidays: America has a number of federal holidays spread throughout the year. Most of these holidays, such as Thanksgiving, are completely secular in nature, and can be celebrated comfortably by the general public, regardless of religious background. Such holidays are important; having shared holidays is one of the constitutive practices that forms a society. In Israel, however, the presence of secular holidays is sorely lacking. Even Independence Day, the one secular holiday, poses a challenge for the Israeli Arabs who make up 20% of Israel’s citizens. Additionally, because Orthodox Jews don’t use phones, cars, or computers on religious holidays, the Jewish holidays are not conducive to shared celebrations between Israel’s religious and secular Jewish communities.

In America, often, if a holiday falls out on a Sunday, you’ll get the Monday off as compensation. In Israel, if a holiday falls out on Saturday, then tough luck. You just lost a day off.

The timing of federal holidays is another issue. In America, you have Labor Day in September, followed by Thanksgiving in November, followed by Christmas, the New Year’s, then President’s Day, then Memorial Day, then July 4th. If you’re lucky, you might even get off on Columbus Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Essentially, there is never a moment when you don’t have a day off or a long weekend to look forward to.

In Israel, the High Holidays and two days of Sukkot, all of which fall out within a month of each other in September/October, are federal holidays. The next official federal holiday is in April, where again, you have a cluster: 1st and last day of Passover, followed by 1.5 days off for Memorial Day and Independence Day just a few weeks weeks later, and one day for Shavuot in June. Then, you hunker down and wait until September again. If you’re lucky you might get Purim or the 9th of Av as days where your employer has to accept your decision to use one of your days of paid vacation. But either way, federal holidays are few and far between.

It’s easy to fix this: Make Purim a day off, 9th of Av half a day, and give off one day of Hanukkah – ideally a Thursday to enable a long weekend. Additionally, Israel could make January 1st a federal holiday, as an addition to, not a replacement of, the Jewish New Year. All of these days have the added benefit of being days where Orthodox Jews do use phones, cars, and computers, paving the way for shared celebrations. January 1st is a day that could also be celebrated by Israel’s Arab population and is already celebrated by its Russian immigrant community as well as by its Christian community (which includes about 10% of its Arab population).

Of course, if I want to be really ambitious, I can suggest that Israel adopt Christmas and Eid-al-Fitr as public holidays, out of respect for the Christian and Muslim communities – and I can explain why that doesn’t contradict with the state’s Jewish nature. I could also propose that Israel establish some type of Thanksgiving-like public holiday that’s neither religious nor political – perhaps a Neighbor’s Day dedicated to getting to know different communities?

Instead I’ll focus on the more achievable goal: getting Israel to adopt 1.5 days that many people already take off (Purim/9 of Av) and one day of Hanukkah, which is already a week when children have off from school, plus New Year’s Day. This would slightly alleviate both the timing and shared non-religious holiday issues. Additionally, if Jewish a holiday falls out on a Friday or Saturday, it should be common practice to give off the Thursday beforehand as a substitute.

As for those who are concerned about adding more public holidays to Israel’s working calendar, Israel’s average annual work hours are already extremely high compared to other OECD countries: 1,853 in 2014 compared to 1,789 in the US and 1,677 in the United Kingdom – and that brings me to my next issue: Sundays.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.