Tag Archives: Orthodox community

L.A. Orthodox rabbis want business ethics to be kosher, too

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax
Education Editor

Jewish Journal
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.

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L.A.’s Main Jewish Thoroughfare Threatened by Looming Traffic Plan

by Rebecca Spence
The Jewish Daily Forward
April 10, 2008

Los Angeles – When Aviva Krieger needs a loaf of challah or kosher groceries to feed her Orthodox Jewish family of five, she routinely visits the stretch of Pico Boulevard that has become this city’s central Jewish shopping district. Now, with the threat of a new city-mandated traffic plan looming over the area, many, including Krieger, fear that what has long been a bustling epicenter of Jewish life will whither away.

In the face of the sweeping traffic changes, Jewish business owners are sounding the alarm that the plan’s parking restrictions during peak shopping hours would make it all but impossible for their patrons to shop in the area.

It’s not just residents of Los Angeles who frequent the several-mile stretch of Pico Boulevard for kosher groceries and all things Judaica. According to shop owners, visitors routinely travel from as far away as San Diego and Las Vegas to sample the rugelach or buy a new mezuza. But they say that their livelihood may be jeopardized if the plan, which was proposed by the mayor’s office and is supported by a city council member with close ties to the Orthodox community, is implemented as scheduled on May 1.

“For all the Jewish businesses, it’s going to be terrible,” said Solange Bohbot, an owner of Delice Bakery and a new restaurant, Delice Bistro, which opened last month. “We spent almost $1 million to build the bistro, and now the mayor comes from downtown with this stupid plan. How are we going to survive?”

Bohbot, 45, and her husband, Julien, are Moroccan-French Jews who opened their bakery six years ago. The business, Bohbot said, has been booming, with people coming from across the city to buy their specialty Moroccan challah bread. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, patrons lined up to inquire about their Passover cakes.

The Bohbots are among those who have filed a lawsuit launched against the city in late February, aiming to halt the plan. The complaint, filed by The Greater West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, is seeking to force the city to perform an Environmental Impact Review before moving ahead with its plan, which affects a nearly seven-mile stretch of Pico and Olympic Boulevards.

According to Jay Handal, chairman of the board of The Greater West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, businesses on Pico and Olympic Boulevards could see their revenues drop by about 25% to 30% if the mayor’s traffic plan is implemented. The plan, which was originally set to take hold March 8, has been postponed as a result of the lawsuit. A hearing is now slated for April 30 in Norwalk Superior Court, a branch of the Los Angeles County court system.

But not all members of the Orthodox community — both residents and proprietors — have signed on to the lawsuit. Many in the Orthodox community are conflicted about how best to respond to the proposed plan, observers say, because one of the plan’s chief backers, city council member Jack Weiss, has been a stalwart friend to the Orthodox Jewish community.

One vocal opponent, Scott Krieger (husband of the aforementioned Aviva), neighborhood resident for 19 years, said that he is hoping to work with Weiss’s office to mitigate the effects of the plan, if it goes through. As for taking the legal route? “It’s not how the Orthodox community works,” he said. “We don’t just file lawsuits like other groups.”

Proponents of the plan, known as “Pico East Olympic West,” contend that by restricting parking in the mornings and afternoons, synchronizing traffic lights and making the broad streets run in only one direction, traffic congestion along the heavily used boulevards — which traverse the city from east to west — will be reduced by seven minutes.

“Pico East Olympic West will improve traffic flow and save time for hundreds of thousands of drivers every year with minimal cost,” said the deputy chief of staff for Councilmember Weiss, Lisa Hansen. “The top quality-of-life concern for residents on the Westside of Los Angeles is traffic congestion, and this plan will provide immediate traffic improvement while the mayor and Councilmember Weiss continue to work to build a Westside subway.”

Elazar Muskin, rabbi of Young Israel of Century City, a 450-member Modern Orthodox synagogue on Pico Boulevard, said that it’s still too early to tell whether or not the plan will place an undue hardship on neighborhood businesses and residents. “We have a wonderful representative in the councilman and in the mayor, and they’re not trying to hurt anyone,” Muskin said. “There is a traffic problem here,” he added. “From my house to my shul it can take 15 minutes, and it should take three.”

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