Some bad news, some good news (Labor Day)

There seems to be more bad news than good news on the labor front as we celebrate Labor Day 2014. While the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers are from 2013, they demonstrate that union membership remained steady at 11.3 percent—the same as 2012. However, union membership has decreased since 1983 (the first year these numbers were available) by about 9 percent. Given that the BLS report also confirms that union members earned about $200 more a week than nonunion laborers, this is a significant loss for workers.

Perhaps the worst news this year is out of Wisconsin where the State Supreme Court upheld Act 10, which significantly limits collective bargaining rights for state workers. This is sure to deplete union membership even more as collective bargaining is one of most attractive and powerful tools that unions offer workers.

The Jewish community has also suffered a serious self-inflicted labor defeat. The Perelman Jewish Day School (PJDS) which is affiliated with Solomon Schechter Schools of the Conservative Movement, unilaterally ceased to recognize the union that had represented its teachers since 1976. PJDS is one of only a handful of Day Schools that had union representation. On August 22, the National Labor Relations Board wrote that it does not have jurisdiction over the case. This means that the school’s decision will stand. While this complies, seemingly, with labor law it is obviously out of step with halakhah or Jewish Law. In 2008, the Committee on Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement passed a decision (authored by Rabbi Jill Jacobs) that says, in part: “Jewish  employers should allow their employees to make their own independent decisions  about whether to unionize, and may not interfere in any way with organizing drives  by firing or otherwise punishing involved workers, by refusing workers the option for  ‘card check’ elections, or by otherwise threatening workers who wish to unionize.” Rabbi Jacobs’ decision follows a long line of halakhic decisions rendered by Orthodox authorities in both the United States and Israel over the past century which authorize and support the right of workers to organize.

The dismissal of the PJDS teachers’ right to organize raises the specter of a growing divide in the Jewish community between the very affluent who can afford to pay the rising tuitions that day schools charge and those in the Jewish community who cannot do so. Many of the latter are those who work for the community as educators.

This is however a holiday, so I will go out on a positive note.

The campaign to raise the minimum wage to a living wage is picking up speed. Seattle, WA raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour. Other cities, including Los Angeles are floating plans to raise the minimum wage to more than $13 an hour.

Finally, in a wonderful turnabout, after years of what seemed like Sisyphian organizing amongst carwasheros, the California legislature passed AB 1387 which amended the California Labor Code. The effect of this amendment is that all car washes have to, upon registering with the state, put up a $150,000 bond “to insure that workers who are not paid in accordance with law can be compensated if their employer disappears or is otherwise unable to pay wages or benefits owed the employees.” Previously the bond required had been $15,000. More importantly, there is an exception to this requirement for any car wash which is covered by a collective bargaining agreement. Not surprisingly, prior to the amendment there were only a handful of union car washes while now there are more than 20, and the list is growing. (A list is here.)


Get involved

If you are planning on having your car washed, please patronize one of the union car washes. (California list here, New York area here.)

Mayor Garcetti is going to be announcing the new minimum wage law at a Labor Day Rally. Details are here.

Statement on a Week of Police Violence in Los Angeles, CA and Ferguson, MO

CLUE-LA and the Black Jewish Justice Alliance released the following statement last week about the oficer involved shooting deaths in Ferguson, MO and in Los Angeles. (I’m on the board of CLUE-LA and am a member of the BJJA and had a hand in crafting this statement.)

“The faithful city

That was filled with justice,

Where righteousness dwelt—

But now murderers.”   –Isaiah 1:21

The Black Jewish Justice Alliance, an effort by Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE-LA) to build a collaborative voice for justice with both African American and Jewish leaders, is extremely concerned about the recent tragic killing of a young unarmed black man, Ezell Ford, in Los Angeles. This shooting happened while the country was still grappling with the shooting of Michael Brown, another unarmed young black man by a police officer in Ferguson, MO.  While all the details of the incident are not yet certain, the shooting of Ford is the latest of many “officer involved shootings” in our city and within our country in which the victim was an unarmed black man.

America suffers from an epidemic of gun violence—some 30,000 people are killed in gun-related incidents every year. Young African-American men are disproportionally represented among intentional shooting victims.[*]  When the shooter is a police officer, who is expected to be the symbol of safety and security in the city and to be trained to limit the use of force—our mourning and concern are deepened and demand justice.

Those whom society gives license to wield violence must be held to the highest standards and the closest scrutiny. Violence must be deployed only as the absolutely last measure after all other avenues have been exhausted. When these guidelines are abrogated, swift punishment must be meted out so that the community does not labor long under the impression that there are “differing weights” and “differing measures,” nor be given to think that African American lives are worth less than others.

We demand that a full and transparent investigation of this incident be carried out and that the LAPD clearly articulate the steps that it is taking to prevent this type of incident from recurring. The Black/Jewish Justice Alliance is ready and willing to engage the LAPD in dialogue to further the recent trend toward more community policing and less violence. We would embrace being a constructive partner so that we can move forward together toward a more peaceful, just city.

–CLUE-LA Black/Jewish Justice Alliance


[*] See e.g. Moore DC, Yoneda ZT, Powell M, Howard DL, Jahangir AA, Archer KR, Ehrenfeld JM, Obremskey WT, Sethi MK. Gunshot victims at a major level I trauma center: a study of 343,866 emergency department visits. The Journal of emergency medicine. 2013 Mar 3;44(3). 585-91.

This is Our Desert, This is Our Promised Land

This morning I was honored to be asked to give the invocation at the 11th Annual CLUE-LA Giants of Justice Breakfast. These are my remarks.

This week in the Jewish cycle of Bible reading, we are in between Leviticus and Numbers. This past Shabbat, we finished the book of Leviticus, and in two days we will start the book of Numbers. The name of the book of Leviticus in Hebrew, according to the Rabbinic tradition is Va-yikra, literally “and God called.” Leviticus is a book of Divine calling—the Tabernacle is built, the rules for the sacrifices are set, the law is spelled out. Toward the end of the book, God replays the scene on the top of Mt. Sinai. In Leviticus 25 we read:

The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them…

So… what was it that was spoken on the top of the mountain? We’re all thinking of the Ten Commandments now. However, Leviticus tells us something else: God spoke of justice. First you must declare a Sabbatical year. A year when the land lies fallow and all debts are forgiven. Next support for the poor, and finally justice for the resident alien, the undocumented immigrant.
Then God gets around to banishing idols. First, however, is justice. If you are not paying your workers properly, taking care of the poor and the immigrants, then idolatry is only the least of your problems since you know not what the God who took you out of Egypt, out of the House of bondage, is all about.
This Shabbat, this Saturday we move into Numbers. The Hebrew name for Numbers is Bamidbar—“in the desert.” Whereas Leviticus was the theory, the seminar on sacrificial ritual and economic justice, Numbers/“in the desert” is the challenge to take that learning, that rootedness in the faith and the tradition and go out into the desert and create the Promised Land.
There is a Yiddish socialist saying: Every place can be Egypt, every place can be the Promised Land.
The work of CLUE-LA is the work of moving from Vayikra to Bamidbar. The hard work of taking our faiths and going into the desert of our city and organizing for economic justice, for immigrant rights, for good union jobs. We do it by walking with workers and dreamers, by learning from workers and dreamers, by slowly converting this desert city into a promised land.
Let us pray. Oh Merciful One, God of Grace and Love, this morning as we honor Laphonza Butler, Soledad Garcia, Anthony Ng, Senior Deacon Guy Wauthy for their tremendous achievements, help us all to remember that we are all partners with You in creating this world, and that the work of creation is not complete until the work of justice is done. Please give our hands the cunning, our hearts the compassion, our minds the wisdom to do this holy work. And let us say Amen.


To find out more about CLUE-LA and the wonderful work that the organization does, go here.

To support CLUE-LA go here.

Matzah, teachers, and labor unions (On the Perelman Jewish Day School Decision)

The story is told of a very prominent rabbi in Europe before World War II who was approached by a freshly minted colleague who had just been hired to supervise the baking of matzohs for Passover. The younger rabbi asked: “There are many, many laws governing the baking of matzah for Passover. Is there any one which I should be especially strict about?” The elder rabbi looked at him intently and said: “Make sure the women who roll the dough get paid a decent wage. This is probably a good deal of their income and they have many mouths to feed. If the matzah bakers are not paid well, the matzah cannot be kosher.”

It should not be surprising that there is such concern placed on the dignity and well-being of workers in the run-up to the holiday which celebrates freedom from slavery. The Babylonian Talmud itself quotes the fourth century Sage Raba as grounding a worker’s freedom to break a work contract in the idea of the Exodus from Egypt, the freedom from slavery.

It is distressing then, that in the weeks before Passover the Perelman Jewish Day School (PJDS) has unilaterally decided to cease recognizing the union that has represented its teachers for decades. (Stories here, here, here, and here) In a letter to parents, the board president wrote that the board had “voted to transition the management of our faculty from a union model governed by a collective bargaining agreement to an independent model guided by our school administrators under a new Faculty Handbook.”

In a FAQ available on its website, the PJDS administration uses all the familiar anti-union code words: “more flexibility,” “direct relationship between administration and teachers” “retaining and recognizing excellent teachers.” Essentially, this means that deprived of the ability to collectively bargain, the teachers are forced to bargain individually with the administration, with no counterweight to the corporate power of the school. There is no grievance or appeal process, and the administrators are free to hire and fire at will.

While the board’s letter claims that there will be no salary cuts during the upcoming year, there is no guarantee beyond that.

This situation is doubly distressing. First, PJDS was one of the few points of light in a bleak labor horizon in the institutional Jewish world. Almost no Jewish Day Schools have teachers represented by a union. It is distressing that after 38 years of following the vast majority of recognized halakhists who all say that union representation is both admirable and recognized by Jewish law, PJDS—a Solomon Schechter school, endorsed by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism—has turned their back on this legacy.

The tradition of worker protection is grounded in the Talmud, with the obligation of an employer to follow local custom in the case of work conditions, and the ability of workers to construct agreements which can then be upheld in court. The Rabbinic tradition grants the community the right to intervene on behalf of workers in the “private contracting” of workers and employers. This halakhic tradition continues to this day, with one of the Chief Rabbis of the State of Israel writing in the last century that it is not believable that we would leave workers alone to face corporations without the benefit of a union, and more recently (2008), the Committee on Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement passing a decision (authored by Rabbi Jill Jacobs) that says, in part: “Jewish  employers should allow their employees to make their own independent decisions  about whether to unionize, and may not interfere in any way with organizing drives  by firing or otherwise punishing involved workers, by refusing workers the option for  ‘card check’ elections, or by otherwise threatening workers who wish to unionize.”

On its side, the PJDS claims that they are upholding the Talmudic teaching that “the world exists only by virtue of the breath, which comes from the mouths of school children” who study Torah. This is of course an important value. The irony here is that in one of Rabbi Feinstein’s first responsa concerning unions (1954), the issue at hand was exactly a teacher’s strike. Rabbi Feinstein rules that the obligation to teach Torah does not override the obligation to treat workers (including teachers, of course) with dignity. While Rabbi Feinstein is wary of the impact that a long strike might have on the teaching of Torah, he is however sympathetic to plight of the teachers, and sees no problem with the union and approves of collective bargaining. In any event, his cautious response in regards to teaching Torah would not in any way apply to the teachers who teach other subjects—for whom there is no obstacle to organizing or, if necessary, striking.

There is a second issue here — the growing class divide in the Jewish community. Tuition at schools like PJDS (and PJDS is far from the only school at this tuition level) is around $20,000 and senior administrators at PJDS make two to four hundred thousand dollars (according to the publicly available  2011 IRS 990 form) (some of the personalities have changed since then, but there is no reason to think the salary schedule has drastically changed). These are corporate salaries, and tuitions that are hard to afford on a middle class income. There is a growing concern that a Schechter or Community School education will only be available to the Jewish 1%. At the same time, the administrative mindset is increasingly impacted by a corporate culture which is overtly anti-union. This is an unsustainable model for a community that sees day schools as a way of training the next generation of Jewish leaders. What lessons do we teach when we put  tuition out of reach of a large segment of the Jewish population, and stand against rather than with our teachers who educate these future leaders?

It is important for the community as a whole, and communal leaders specifically, to remember that compensating the workers who make the matzot in a dignified manner is as important a mitzvah as eating the matzah itself.

The King and the Ring (On Purim and Violence)

The question, twenty years after Baruch Goldstein slaughtered 29 Palestinians at prayer, wounding tens more, is this: How can we celebrate Purim? Goldstein, heard the reading of the Megillah on Purim night, heard (for the fortieth time?) that the Jews took vengeance on their enemies, slaughtered thousands of men, women, and children. Twice. Goldstein, a medical doctor, then rose early in the morning, went to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and shot his M16 until he was overpowered and killed, having killed or wounded tens of praying innocents. How do we read this tale of revenge when we know that that revenge, the Purim revenge, the revenge of “the Jews got their enemies in their power” (Esther 9:1) has been wreaked?
For centuries we were safe from the bloodletting that we fantasized about, because we were powerless on the whole, and our blood was being let. The fantasy of turning the tables—on the very day that the decree was to be carried out “the opposite happened”—was a fantasy of comfort. Someday our oppression will end.
Now, however, our oppression has—in most parts of the world—ended. The State of Israel is powerful, armed, mighty. Yet, we continue to read and celebrate the fantasies of revenge. On Yom Yerushalayim, yeshivah students dance through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem singing ki lashem hamluchah umoshel bagoyim/״for kingship is the Lord’s and He rules the nations״ (Psalms 22:29) while banging on the shutters of the closed Palestinian shops. (Meticulously not repeating the name of God, but rather singing hashem over and over again, according to the precepts of the pious, while striking fear and humiliation in the hearts of other human beings.)
The Sages of the Talmud, especially the fourth century Babylonian Rava, were neither so simplistic nor were they naïve. It is to Rava that we owe the free flow of alchoholic drink on Purim. Rava says: “A person is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim, until he cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed is Haman,’ and ‘Blessed is Mordecai.’” The statement is immediately followed by a story:

Rabbah and Rav Zeirah made a Purim feast together.
They got drunk, Rabbah rose, slaughtered Rav Zeirah.
On the morrow, when the wine had left him,
he [Rabbah] asked for mercy on him [Rav Zeira], and he revived him.
A year later, he said to him, “the gentleman should come and we will do the Purim feast [together].”
He said to him, not in every hour does a miracle happen.

Why does Rava choose, as his criterion of drunkenness, not being able to distinguish between Mordecai and Haman? That is not being buzzed, nor even inebriated. That is being fall on the floor, passed out drunk. Rava’s Purim drinking does not bespeak the comradery of friends around the Shabbes table, or at the pub. Rava’s Purim goes much darker. Then, the editor of the Talmud follows it up with the disturbing story of Rabbah and Rav Zeira who did get that drunk, whereupon Rabbah killed Rav Zeira. This story is illustrative, not dispositive. It is as if the editor was saying: “Yes. This drunk.”

If we read the megillah carefully we are left unsettled. In the beginning of the story (after the King kills Vashti and takes Esther in her stead) he gives Haman his ring and tells him that, yes, he can “destroy, massacre, and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women, on a single day.” After we are led through the intricate paths and byways of the royal intrigue for the next six chapters, Haman is found out and killed. The King then takes the ring from Haman’s cold, dead hands and gives it to Mordecai. He grants Mordecai and Esther permission to “destroy, massacre, and exterminate its armed force together with women and children, and plunder their possessions—on a single day.” For good measure, the Jews of Shushan repeat this on the morrow.

The question we are left with is this: In the next scene, the scene after the end of the megillah, who will get the ring then? If Ahaseurus the King is still in charge, and his rule is based on whim (and the last person who paid him) and not justice, we suspect that another Haman will get the ring, then another Mordecai, forever. Mordecai and Esther’s victory is not redemption. As Rava says further on: “We are still slaves of Ahaseurus.” The point of getting drunk on Purim is not celebratory. It is to look into the darkness of the unredeemed world.

It is not coincidental that in that unredeemed world Rabbah slaughtered Rav Zeira. The point of the story is just that. It is a miracle in an unredeemed world that people don’t kill each other. Not being able to tell the difference between Haman and Mordecai means living in a world of constant enmity where there is no solid ground to stand on.

If we “celebrate” Purim this year, and any year, it can only be as a way of looking into the darkness of the unredeemed soul of the world. That is the place where we will stay—the place of Haman slaughtering then Mordecai slaughtering, Palestinians slaughtering then Jews slaughtering—until we all move to solid ground, when we get rid of Ahaseurus and throw away the ring—when we create political structures, states and societies, which support justice rather than fomenting injustice and fantasies of revenge.

A Time for Righteous Rage (on Martin Luther King Day)

(Here is my latest post published on Zeek.)

Any Sage who is not vengeful or does not hold a grudge is not a Sage. –Yoma 22b-23a

On the official anniversary of the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, one might think that I could have found a more appropriate epigram than the one that graces this essay. Yet, this is the statement that comes to mind, and I think it appropriate.

“But wait!” you might object along with the anonymous editorial voice of the Babylonian Talmud, “Doesn’t Torah say ‘You shall not take vengeance, and you shall not harbor a grudge?!’” “This is true,” that same anonymous sage answers, “but it only applies to monetary matters or business dealings or interpersonal relations around material things.” If I ask to borrow your shovel and you refuse, I may not tomorrow refuse to lend you my hose saying: “You did not lend me your shovel.” Nor may I lend you my hose and say: “I am not like you. I lent you my hose even though you refused to lend me your shovel.” In these instances, vengeance is forbidden and grudge-holding is prohibited.

However, there is an obligation and a place for righteous rage. The mishnaic Hebrew word for it istar‘omet, which has the same root as thunder. The Sage who witnesses an injustice and does not burn with righteous rage is not a Sage. The Sage who does not carry the memory of unjust treatment, and does not rage against it is not a Sage.

please continue reading here

Standing before God (On Hillel and Open Hillel)

In a powerful display of moral imagination The fourth century Babylonian Sage Rava (in Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud 31a) claims that when a person is ushered into their final judgement before the Heavenly court, the person is asked six questions. 1. Did you conduct your business dealing justly? 2. Did you study Torah regularly? 3. Did you have children? 4. Did you yearn for redemption? 5. Did you engage in learned discussions of matters of wisdom? 6. Did you derive understanding by analogy? Rava then concludes by saying that even if the person answered yes to all these, his fate is decided by whether or not he feared God.

This exercise in imagination is a powerful one. The most interesting thing about this specific example of the exercise is that Rava, one of the greatest of the Babylonian Sages, starts his list with just business dealings. He mentions Torah study as the second question but only gets to the heart of his life’s mission at question five. Even then, all this is overridden, for Rava, by the fear of God.

This piece of wisdom came to mind as I was thinking of the brouhaha stirred up by the Open Hillel movement’s challenge to the Israel guidelines set by Hillel International, and Eric Fingerhut’s strong reaction to Open Hillel .

As John Judis reports in the New Republic Hillel’s evolving stand on Israel has now moved it into partnership with AIPAC. Further, towing the AIPAC line has become, for Hillel International the meaning of being Jewish.

Rava’s intellectual and spiritual honesty made him realize that despite the fact that his life’s work was in the study hall, deriving mountains of law from the crowns upon the letters in the Torah scroll, still and all, what was most important was whether or not he dealt justly with others. In Hillel International’s guidelines for who might be allowed to use the Hillel name, the only criterion is that a person pledge fealty to the State of Israel “as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders as a member of the family of nations.” Those who don’t sign the pledge are not able to partner with Hillel.

One might have thought that Hillel, which has somewhere in its portfolio the mission to be a home to Jewish life on campus, would have articulated something about its ethical commitments. Something along the lines of: “Hillel does not accept donations from anybody who has not been faithfully honest in their business, who has not done their utmost to ensure that they were just to their workers.” Perhaps “Hillel will not partner with an organization that uses religion to oppress others, or whose religious practices give religion a bad name.” Unfortunately, none of this is on Hillel’s website. The only guidelines, as far as I could tell, are in regards to one’s Zionist fidelity.

This is the difference between a Sage and a politician. When the values of the Jewish people are articulated by a politician, they ignore ethics and go straight to politics. You are Jewish if you will go to the AIPAC convention. You are not Jewish if you “hold Israel to a double standard.” The Sage realizes that the core values are beyond the realpolitik of the current moment.

How can we bear the guilt? (On the first anniversary of Newtown)

This week’s Torah portion includes Jacob’s blessings—first of his grandsons and then of his sons. Jacob’s blessing of his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe (Joseph’s children) read as we would expect—summoning God’s blessing on these children and their progeny. However, when Jacob blesses his children, the blessings come out as a review and critique of their lives. Our Rabbis tell us that Jacob had intended to foretell for his progeny “the end of days” (Genesis 49:1) but that his prophetic vision was blocked. Instead he takes account of what his children have wrought.

In blessing his second and third born sons, Shimon and Levi, Jacob must come to account with one of the most disturbing events in Genesis—the slaughter of the Shechemites following the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah. In the event, it was Shimon and Levi who orchestrated the well wrought response. They demanded that the Shechemites circumcise themselves on the pretext that then Jacob’s clan would intermarry and trade with them. Once the Schechemites were weakened from the circumcision, the brothers proceeded to slaughter the Shechemite males. (Genesis 34) Jacob in his “blessing” says the following:

Simeon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.

This is the newer Jewish Publication Society Translation. The word which poses a problem is me’chayrotetayhem which is translated here as “tools of lawlessness.” The Old (1917) Jewish Publication Society translation, renders the phrase “Weapons of violence their kinship,” while the King James version has “instruments of cruelty are in their habitations.” This should give one a sense of the difficulty in figuring out what the word me’chayrotetayhem means. Continue reading

Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Black Friday: On truth and justice

Writing about Thanksgiving and Hanukkah as Thanksgiving wanes and Black Friday waxes.

Both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are holidays that celebrate a mythic narrative. In both cases the myth replaced a much more gruesome reality. Thanksgiving celebrates the Pilgrims surviving the first winter in the New World with the help of the Native Peoples. In celebration people come together to give thanks for the good things in their own lives–family, friendship, plenty. These are good things to celebrate. However, the myth of the Native Americans welcoming the Europeans to this part of the world erases the story of genocide, atrocity, and displacement which was the actual fate of most of the Native Americans. As Malcolm X said in a different context, the Native Peoples did not land on Plymouth Rock, it landed on them. So, while gratitude is an important practice, so is truth and the admission of culpability. Continue reading

Glocks, Glatt Mart, Walmart, and Nonviolence

glocks@walmartThis past Thursday night, in need of Whole Wheat flour and sugar to bake challah, I attempted to use voice commands on my iPhone to find out when the local kosher supermarket closed. I said: “Find Glatt Mart.” Siri (the voice of the iPhone) returned a page labelled “Glocks at Walmart.” (see picture)

What is one to do with this information?

(Glocks, according to Wikipedia, is a series of semi-automatic pistols designed and produced by Glock Ges.m.b.H., located in Deutsch-Wagram, Austria.  By way of a rather brilliant marketing strategy (targeting Police Department with discounts, and then using the “cred” of being used by those Police Departments to move into the civilian market) the Glock has become the most popular American hand gun — for police officers, civilians, and criminals. It is easy to learn how to use and easy to fire. Once the guns age a bit, the Police Departments gets new guns and the used guns go on the largely unregulated second hand market.) Continue reading