by Julie Gruenbaum Fax
October 16, 2008
Seeking to accentuate Jewish traditions that place a premium on ethical integrity, Los Angeles Orthodox rabbis are encouraging local businesses to sign up for a new seal of certification that ensures employers are treating workers fairly and humanely.
The move comes in response to allegations over the past year that the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, Agriprocessors in Postville, Iowa, routinely violated the rights of its employees, many of them undocumented workers and many of them underage.
“We have always considered ourselves to be a light onto the nations — we’re the ones who are supposed to be a paradigm and example and role model for the rest of the world of what it means to be an ethical, moral, Godly person,” said Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, leader of Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park. “If the world or if the media is looking askance, for whatever reason, at the Orthodox community, then it behooves us to address the issues.”
Korobkin rallied his colleagues, Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, to address the national crisis in kosher confidence by turning an eye toward businesses that serve the Jewish community on a local level.
They will offer, at no cost, a rabbinic seal of approval to any business or institution that volunteers to undergo scrutiny to verify that employees are being treated according to local, state and federal labor laws. The certificate will not be tied to kashrut in any way.
“We felt we had to do a kiddush Hashem [sanctification of God’s name], and the kiddush Hashem was to be really concerned about the employees and how they are being treated,” Muskin said. “It has nothing to do with kashrut — this goes way beyond kosher eateries and butcher shops and bakeries. We want to know our schools and shuls and businesses are treating employees correctly.”
The three rabbis, and Rabbi Steven Weil of Beth Jacob, introduced the concept to their congregants in sermons during the High Holy Days. They have volunteered their own synagogues to be analyzed first and then within the next few months, hope to expand to other shuls, schools and businesses, starting mainly with the Pico-Robertson corridor and reaching out as the project grows.
A similar initiative in Israel, Bema’aglei Tzedek, was founded in 2004.
Last year, the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism created Hekhsher Tzedek, a certification for kosher food processors that encompasses fair treatment of workers, corporate integrity and environmental responsibility.
The Los Angeles group is calling itself Peulat Sachir: Ethical Labor Initiative, based on language from the verse in Leviticus 19 that prohibits an employer from withholding wages overnight from a worker.
“Whereas we are appropriately extraordinarily careful about the laws of kashrut, clearly we have an attitude that is less rigorous and perhaps even somewhat lackadaisical when it comes to this whole other vitally important area of Jewish law,” Kanefsky said. “A religious community has to be very concerned about kashrut, about education, about mikvah [ritual bath], and it has to be very concerned that the people we interact with on a regular basis are being treated in way that is halachically proper.”
Peulat Sachir will involve itself in six areas: minimum wage, overtime, rest and meal breaks, workers compensation, leave policies and anti-discrimination protections. A lay board of labor lawyers, businesspeople and others with expertise in the field will analyze business practices by looking at paperwork and talking with employees.
The board will not deal with the complex area of immigration status. Labor laws apply equally to documented and undocumented workers, explained Craig Ackermann, a labor lawyer and lay leader on the project.
Businesses will not have to pay for certificates, but the rabbis acknowledge that businesses may have to spend more to qualify for the certificate, if, for instance, they have to start paying for overtime, giving paid leave or making sure workers get appropriate breaks.
Whether businesses which are not now in compliance will risk having to pass those costs on to customers is an open question.
“As people committed to halacha (Jewish law), we pay what has to be paid so we can fulfill the halacha — we do it for kashrut, we do it to teach our children Torah. Should we not do it for the halacha of following the law of the land or of how we treat our employees?” Kanefsky asked.
The halachic concept of “dina demalchuta dina,” the law of the land is the halacha, makes legal adherence and Jewish law one and the same, he pointed out.
Ackermann guesses that the first businesses to respond positively will be those that are already in compliance with labor laws.
The rabbis are hoping that once consumers begin to ask for the certificate or more heavily patronize businesses that are certified, business owners will see the benefits, both moral and monetary, to being able to display a Peulat Sachir certificate in the window.
“We’re hoping this is something store owners won’t be able to dismiss easily,” Kanefsky said. “And frankly, the idealist in me believes that store owners will want to be a part of this mitzvah of raising awareness about this in our community.”
Over the next few weeks, the rabbis will continue to constitute the lay board and will reach out to businesses and different segments of the community. They are contacting leaders of the Iranian community, because a large percentage of the businesses on Pico Boulevard are Iranian owned. They are also reaching out to the right wing of the Orthodox community, which on a national level has been wary of similar projects.
That debate came into focus last month, when the right-wing Agudath Israel of America reacted tepidly to an announcement from the centrist Orthodox Rabbincal Council of America (RCA) that it is creating a guide to labor ethics to be distributed not only to kosher producers but to all businesses.
The RCA, which serves as the halachic adviser for the Orthodox Union (OU) kashrut certification agency, said it will write into kosher supervision contracts the need for companies to comply with all local and federal laws regarding labor and environmental issues. While the OU has long had a rule on the books that its certified companies must be in compliance with the law, this gives more teeth to the provision and raises awareness among kosher purveyors.
The RCA’s new guidelines will also delineate talmudic and biblical business ethics beyond American law, which it hopes businesses will voluntarily adopt.
Korobkin expects that the ethics initiative in Los Angeles will spread to other communities.
“I am hopeful that this will raise a greater level of awareness within various elements of the Orthodox community that this is an issue that needs to be addressed,” Korobkin said. “I think many times we in the Orthodox community want to know how to react to crisis, and sometimes the way we react is by having a tehillim [psalm reciting] rally, or we speak about the need to daven [pray] harder, or to do teshuvah [repentance]. We feel this is form of teshuvah, as well — this is a form of raising awareness in certain areas where there is room for improvement. We can act as a shining example to society at large and to other communities.”
For more information on the Ethical Labor Initiative, call (310) 276-9269.
by Amy Klein
May 22, 2008
While some Los Angeles kosher supervisors and suppliers see the crackdown on illegal immigrants at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, as a temporary setback, others are concerned with larger economic and ethical implications that reach beyond this particular case.
“They don’t have a lot of things,” said Albert Zadeh, owner of kosher supermarket Pico Glatt, of Agriprocessors. “If you order five cases of meat, you might get two cases.” Chicken is a particular problem, he said.
Most customers — 80 percent, he said — are not aware of the problem, so their shopping habits have remained the same. Zadeh said he’s not planning to raise prices on meat and poultry.
“Prices are high enough,” he said.
Zadeh said that Kehilla, the kosher supervisory agency that oversees his market and receives meat from the Agriprocessors Postville plant, is addressing the issue of obtaining supply.
Rabbi Avrohom Teichman, Kehilla’s rabbinic administrator, believes the effects of the raid will be short term.
“As far as I understand, this is a temporary situation,” he said, noting that Agriprocessors is trying to address the labor issue. And while there are other kosher meat suppliers, “I don’t think anyone can ramp up production to cover the shortfall.”
But it’s not a crisis, he emphasized — especially at this time of year; “It’s the Omer [the period between Passover and Shavuot when many religious Jews do not eat meat], and generally after Pesach, there is a reduction in spending.”
Teichman stressed that this situation has nothing to do with kashrut (dietary law).
“This is an immigration, legal and labor issue — if they could not maintain the kashrut standard, they would not produce,” he said.
But what about the ethical issues pertaining to the use of illegal immigrants as a labor force at a kosher facility? Are kashrut supervisors concerned with issues of Jewish observance beyond the technicalities of the slaughtering process?
Teichman believes the company was not aware of the illegal immigrants who were using fraudulent paperwork.
“We support all legal activities,” he said of Kehilla.
Rabbi Yakov Vann agrees. “We do deal with ethical issues,” said Vann, director of kashrut services at the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), the other main kosher supervisory agency here. Although he would not comment on the Agriprocessors case or on immigration violation, he said the RCC is very concerned with “work practice issues and the way you treat your employees.”
Coincidentally, the RCC is about to begin importing meat from a new plant in Wichita, Kan., under the label California Delight.
“We have been working on this for a year and a half,” he said. The important thing for meat, he said, is “never to rely on one source.”
That’s what Kosher Club owner Daryl Schwartz does: use more than one source. “It’s not affecting me at all,” he said.
The ethical issues of “Mitzvot ben Adam L’Chaveiro” — commandments between human beings (as opposed to those between God and man) — has prompted some local Orthodox rabbis to consider taking action.
On Sunday, May 18, Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation and Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City met to discuss creating a hechsher (kosher certification) for ethical issues.
Although the discussions are “way too premature” to know specifics, Muskin said that in general, “we want to make sure that kashrut is not only a ritual issue but a human issue — that the human interrelationship between proprietor and worker is also according to halacha, or Jewish law.”
In fact, he said, the issues of whether workers are being treated well, whether they are getting paid minimum wage, whether they are being paid on time — and for overtime — and if the work conditions are sufficient, these are all issues covered in the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish law.
The rabbis don’t yet know how this new oversight would take place but know that “we have to be sensitive to these issues,” Muskin said. “If we haven’t been in the past, we must now be extra sensitive. This is part of halacha, and it can’t be ignored.”
by Rebecca Spence
The Jewish Daily Forward
May 8, 2008
San Francisco – Go to almost any Jewish conference and you’ll likely find the ethnic makeup to be largely, and unsurprisingly, white.
But at a recent plenum in San Francisco, a group championing ethnic diversity in Jewish life turned that situation on its head, as scores of black, Latino and Asian Jews from around the world came together to grapple with the challenges they face gaining acceptance in the mainstream Jewish world.
The group of 80 Jewish leaders from 31 different countries — including Uganda, South Africa and Portugal — who gathered the first weekend this month for the Be’Chol Lashon International Think Tank had one clear message for the Jewish community: Open your doors to diversity. The sixth annual event, organized by Be’Chol Lashon — a Bay Area initiative dedicated to fostering diversity in Jewish life — and fittingly held at the Hotel Kabuki in the heart of San Francisco’s Japantown, centered this year on questions of conversion and whether Judaism might take a more proactive role in gaining adherents.
As demographic studies in recent years have shown a shrinking American Jewish population, the organized Jewish community has poured millions of dollars into strengthening identity in young Jews. But the mainstream response to the so-called population crisis, which has resulted in a slew of identity-building projects — among them, “Birthright Israel,” a program that takes tens of thousands of American Jews in their teens and 20s on free trips to the Jewish state — is not the solution, according to Diane and Gary Tobin, co-founders of Be’Chol Lashon. The organization, whose name is Hebrew for “in every tongue,” was established eight years ago in the wake of the Tobins’ 1997 adoption of an African American boy.
Gary Tobin, a Jewish researcher who is president of San Francisco’s Institute for Jewish & Community Research, contends that only through welcoming converts of all ethnicities and breaking down the barriers to conversion will the Jewish people be able to reverse the trend of dwindling population numbers. Tobin is referring not just to welcoming converts who are married to Jews, but also to reaching out to non-Jews generally.
“If we think that going to Jewish day school or trips to Israel are going to save the Jewish people, it’s just silly,” Tobin said. “The response of the organized Jewish community has been to circle the wagons, and what this room represents is the possibility of expansion, not constriction,” he said, referring to the conference participants.
The driving philosophy behind Be’Chol Lashon, Tobin added, is that Jews should, in fact, “be competing in the marketplace of world religion.” If Jews began reaching out across color lines, the number of Jews in America alone could increase, over the next quarter of a century, to 12 million from 6 million, he said.
Indeed, some in the organized Jewish community take issue with Tobin’s approach. In more traditional corners, emphasizing outreach over strengthening Jewish identity from within is often met with skepticism.
“We’re worried about bringing people in, but what about people leaving?” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of the Modern Orthodox Los Angeles synagogue Young Israel of Century City. “We have to have more money and creative efforts spent energizing those who are already within the Jewish community rather than proselytizing.”
Conference participants were as diverse geographically as they were in skin color and ethnicity. Participants included Rabbi Capers Funnye of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken, a predominantly African American Jewish congregation on Chicago’s South Side; Ishe F.C. Raulinga Hamisi, an elder of South Africa’s Lemba community, which claims Jewish roots, and Miguel Segura, who was raised in Mallorca as a Xueta, the name given to descendants of Jews from Mallorca who were forced by the Catholic Church to convert to Christianity.
On the first day of the conference, Jewish legal scholars — including a Modern Orthodox rabbi, Darren Kleinberg — parsed Jewish law, or Halacha, and what it has to say about conversion. Contrary to widely held belief, the panelists agreed, Jewish law is far more open to conversion than contemporary practice would indicate.
That discussion was enough to sway at least one Korean American conference participant, Helen Kim, to reconsider her reservations about conversion. Kim, a 35-year-old sociology professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., is married to a Jewish man and has felt drawn to the religion ever since she first developed a grade-school crush on a Jewish boy. Kim, who has served for the past two years on the board of her local Reform synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, said that she has long felt ambivalent about formally converting to Judaism, because of questions of bloodline. But the panel on Halacha and conversion convinced her otherwise. “This conference has made me feel less resistant to conversion and more comfortable with it,” Kim said.
Another panel considered the effects of last February’s ruling by the Israeli chief rabbinate that only 15 rabbinic courts and 40 designated Orthodox rabbis in America could perform sanctioned conversions. Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, a 39-year-old leader of the Abayudaya, a group of some 800 Jews in eastern Uganda whose ancestors have practiced the religion for nearly a century, said that it was refreshing for him to understand that even among Orthodox Jews, there are conflicts over the question “Who is a Jew?”
“It has become a Jewish culture that we don’t accept each other,” said Sizomu, who will return to Uganda next month, after receiving rabbinic ordination from Los Angeles’s American Jewish University. “You are frustrated with the Orthodox, and then you see they don’t even accept each other.”