Social Action Groups Fight for Cleaning Ladies’ Rights


I am sitting in a Brooklyn diner, having breakfast with Marlene Champion, 61, a tall, striking woman from Barbados. Champion makes her living as a domestic worker, and right now she works as a nanny caring for a 4-year-old girl in Brooklyn Heights.

Champion is also an active member of Domestic Workers United (DWU), a Bronx-based organization fighting for domestic workers’ rights. In the 16 years since she immigrated to the United States, Champion has worked in four households, all Jewish. With the exception of one family that treated her badly, she says she’s had good relations with all of them.

Champion felt especially close to a Dr. Steiner, whom she took care of for six years, until he died at 92 with Champion at his side. She was in charge of all his care, prepared his meals, did the laundry and kept his apartment clean. She accompanied him to all the family weddings.

He had specialized in the study of tuberculosis, and he used to tell her stories about his work. Sometimes, he showed her his old slides. You’d make such a great doctor, or nurse, he used to tell her. Champion still keeps a picture of Steiner on her wall, and stays in close contact with his children.

After she finishes telling me her story, I say that my family had a housekeeper when I was growing up. I also say something that she probably already knows: that hiring domestic help is fairly common in Jewish households. And then I ask her what is special, if anything, about working for Jewish families. She smiles.
“We’re of different races,” she says. “But I think we have a lot in common.”

When Jews hire people to do household jobs — anybody who cleans, cooks, does the laundry, cares for children or elderly parents — we are the ones who represent the privileged class, with the funds to hire help. Jews today are generally wealthier and better educated than the majority of Americans. But the widespread practice of having “help” goes all the way back to our grandmother’s day, when even Jewish families in modest circumstances very often had cleaning ladies, perhaps because the wages for domestic work were so low that even working-class families could often afford this small luxury.

“It wasn’t as if you were putting on airs,” a Jewish lady in her 70s told me. “Having a cleaning lady was socially acceptable.”

Yet even the term “cleaning lady” indicates the awkwardness employers feel in the presence of a rather un-American class system. We don’t need to call the electrician the “electrical fix-it gentleman,” after all.

Today, two-career households need housekeepers and nannies and cleaning ladies even more than the stereotypical clean-floor-obsessed housewives of a previous generation might have. Indeed, some of the backlash against the women’s movement focuses on this issue: The gains of middle-class women during the last three decades, critics charge, were achieved through the exploitation of other, less fortunate women. And despite the energy that fueled the 1970s efforts to elevate the status of housecleaners — stating that being paid fairly for a job responsibly done was no different if you were a housekeeper than if you were any other kind of laborer — those early efforts to make the relationship between employer and employee more businesslike never took hold.

Our relationship with the women who work in our homes is still inherently an unequal one. This fact makes many of us so uncomfortable that some Jewish women refuse to have household help even if they can afford it. Breena Kaplan, 65, is an artist on Long Island who has always done her own cleaning,
“It’s my schmutz, so I should take care of it,” said Kaplan, a “red-diaper baby” who grew up in “the Co-ops,” two Bronx apartment buildings populated in the 1940s and onward largely by left-wing Jews.

Her father, who came from Russia, a card-carrying Communist, made “a good living” in the textile business, and he insisted that Luba, his wife, have help in the house. Kaplan remembers Elizabeth, a tall black woman who smelled of starch and soap, standing over the sink, scrubbing the family’s wash. But Elizabeth didn’t last long, because Luba couldn’t stand the humiliation she felt at a black woman coming into her home and slaving away for her in, of all places, the Co-ops.

Some Jewish women attempt to deal with the discomfort they feel at the imbalance of power between them and their domestic workers by reframing the relationship as a collaboration. Carla Singer, a film producer in New York City, employs Grace Smith — not her real name — as a twice-weekly housekeeper. Singer says she really only needs Smith one day a week, but, “this is tikkun. I know where my extra money is going — to support Grace and her son. If I send it to a charity, I don’t know where my money is going.”

Singer feels that the tikkun, or repair of the world, is mutual — Smith helped her out at a very difficult time, after Singer had just made a hugely dislocating transition, she said, moving to New York from Los Angeles with her teenage daughter. One day, as Smith was helping them settle into a new apartment, Singer, stressed-out, snapped at her.

Smith shot back: “You know, Carla, we’re partners in this.”

“She was right,” Singer said. “In a sense, she doesn’t work for me.”

Except that Smith does work for Singer. And it’s time, especially in the context both of the global discussion of immigration laws and the more local desperation of working mothers juggling many needs, to talk openly about the relationship between Jewish women and the help — almost always female — we employ in the intimate settings of our own homes and families.

According to DWU, virtually all domestic workers today are immigrants, the vast majority of them undocumented, which makes it all too easy for employers to exploit them, wittingly or not. The good news is that there’s movement to encourage Jews to treat those who work for us with fairness, as we’re enjoined to do as a basic Jewish value.

A series of interviews with both Jewish employers and their domestic workers revealed that, happily, the mutual respect between Champion and the Steiner family is not unique. But I also heard awful stories about Jewish families who treat their domestic workers badly, ranging from subtle to not-so-subtle insults — recalling Philip Roth’s cringe-inducting scene of Portnoy’s mother and her treatment of the so-called “schvartze” in “Portnoy’s Complaint” — and a real blindness to the basic needs of the employee to allegations of physical abuse.

Some bosses, in flagrant disregard of Jewish teachings and basic consideration, don’t pay their domestic workers on time. “Do not withhold the pay of your workers overnight,” it says in Leviticus 19:13. Or, in a striking lack of empathy, some employers don’t recognize the dire financial consequences to a day worker who may be counting on the next day’s wages to pay the rent, or feed her kids, who gets a call the night before, announcing “I don’t need you tomorrow.”

Some women mistreat their domestic workers in more subtle ways. Gayle Kirshenbaum, 39, who is active in Jews for Economic and Racial Justice, a New York City-based grass-roots group with the stated goal of injecting a “progressive Jewish voice” into New York City politics, once remarked to a friend, also Jewish, how awful it must be for Caribbean domestic workers to have to leave their children back home with relatives. Her friend disagreed.

“No, it doesn’t bother them,” the friend said. “They’re not like us.”

Another woman spoke of her friend, a Holocaust survivor’s daughter in her 50s, living in a New York suburb, who confessed to feeling gratified when she ordered around a non-Jewish Polish immigrant cleaning lady.

The one family that Champion said did not treat her well consisted of two ill and elderly parents, whom Champion looked after for eight months, and their adult daughter who lived nearby. The problem, Champion said, was the daughter.

She would buy only enough groceries for her parents; Champion was expected to get her own food. When Champion lifted the father from his bed to his wheelchair — something she had been trained to do — the daughter, likening Champion to a man, would call her “Harry.”

And one day, when the daughter was visiting, Champion overheard a conversation between daughter and father. The father was telling his daughter how much he liked Champion, so much that he’d like to give her something. Maybe even some stock that he owned.

The daughter was furious. “Oh, no! They’re just the help!” she screamed loudly. Champion, although in another room, could not help but hear. “Give it to your grandchildren!”

Money, of course, is a real issue. Many domestic workers are badly paid. According to DWU, some day workers receive as little as $2 an hour; some live-ins are paid $250 a month. DWU recommends a living wage of $14 an hour.

Even though labor laws technically protect all workers, documented or not, in reality the laws fail domestic workers. Domestics do not have the right to unionize, and most are undocumented immigrants, which makes them doubly vulnerable. These facts make it nearly impossible for them to demand such rights as health care, severance pay, paid vacation, sick days, notice of termination — all things that we would likely assume were due us if we were the employees ourselves. But how domestic workers fare depends entirely on the will, good or ill, of their employers.

Jeannie Prager of Englewood, N.J., spoke about how these issues play out in her tightly knit modern Orthodox community in a New York suburb: “We are the people who seem to hire the most housekeepers. And we’re doing a terrible job.”

Prager knows this, because over the years she’d gotten quite an earful, both from Victoria Smith (not her real name), her former housekeeper, and from Smith’s schmoozing friends, who often hung out at the house.

Prager recently fired Smith, who had been with her for 13 years, providing care to Prager’s ailing nonagenarian mother for the last nine of them.

“It was time for a change,” Prager said. “She was always on the phone. Her friends who worked in the neighborhood often stopped by for a bite and a chat on their way home. It was all just too much, too much noise and commotion.”
Letting Smith go was a tough decision, though. “She was a godsend in many ways. And a 13-year relationship, with two women sharing one kitchen, becomes a very close friendship.”

When Prager finally got the words out, she gave Smith two weeks’ notice and $5,000, six weeks’ severance pay. Smith, also eligible for unemployment compensation, was furious.

“I always held you up on a pedestal,” Smith told her employer. “But my friends always warned me. And now I see that they were right, that you’re just like all the rest.”

“The rest,” of course, meant “the rest of the Jews.” Prager felt horrible. But despite Smith’s anger, she and her family paid a shiva call when Prager’s mother died shortly after the firing.

Smith declined several requests to speak with this writer directly, though she and Prager stay in touch.

It took Smith seven months to find a comparable job. Prager said she was the one to find it for her. In the Prager household, Smith had two weeks off annually to start, increased to three weeks at her 10-year anniversary, five sick days, three personal days and “of course,” said Prager, paid holidays.

Prospective employers, responding to the ad Prager posted for Smith on the shul’s Web site, kept telling her they’d never heard of a housekeeper getting paid vacation.

“These things upset me so much,” Prager told me. “They give us such a bad name.”
Worried, Prager approached her rabbi with the idea of starting a discussion in the congregation about practices around hiring household help.

“I feel that if some of these women could speak in a safe environment and say what bothers them, and likewise for their housekeepers, we would all benefit,” she said. The rabbi said her idea was interesting, and that was the end of it.

Prager had nailed it, though her rabbi wasn’t listening. But at least one rabbi is: Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of the Brooklyn congregation Kolot Chayeinu devoted last year’s Rosh Hashanah sermon to employing domestic workers, not a usual High Holidays theme.

“Since we are Jews sitting here together on a night designated for thinking about doing right, it seems crucial that we Jews be thoughtful about and to the people who work in our homes,” she said. And often, she added, we are not. “Not out of malice, but out of busyness and lack of thought.”

Lippmann cited the story of Sarah and Hagar, whom the infertile Sarah mistreats when Hagar conceives. The Ramban, Lippman said, “says Sarah sinned when she did this and so did Abraham by letting it happen.”

She added: “When we hire someone to work in our homes, we must see that person as fully human, seen by God.”

Lippmann, like Kirshenbaum, is active in Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ). Two years ago, the group embarked on a “Shalom Bayit” campaign in partnership with DWU. JFREJ also hosts small group discussions in people’s homes, the “living room project.”

As part of the campaign, the group’s members conduct discussions in synagogues about the just treatment of domestic workers. Last year, for example, Kirshenbaum and DWU members Champion and Allison Julien were invited to visit Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, an upscale New York suburb, for the congregation’s social action Shabbat. The women spoke about domestic workers’ rights.

JFREJ’s membership is decidedly left-leaning. In their shalom bayit, or peace in the house, campaign, the group is consciously trying, says Kirshenbaum, “to broach the line between progressive and more traditional Jews.” Because it is clear, she says, “how deeply this issue resonates in the Jewish community” in both directions. Jews are employers, she said, and they also want to do right by their employees.

“Doing right” means putting your money where your mouth is. At the living room meetings, JFREJ organizers talk about the specifics of treating domestic workers in a professional manner. Which means, for example, offering full-time employees a contract. The standard contract, based on a DWU model, specifies, for example, what responsibilities the job does — and does not — entail, how many paid sick days and vacation days the employee is entitled to, what the rate of payment will be for overtime work, the medical care the employer agrees to pay for, and what the food arrangement will be.

The document explaining the contract goes out of its way to assure employers that using a contract is good for them, too, leading to more loyalty from the employee, and an end to abrupt departures, as there’s a “must give notice” clause.

But it may take a while to shift employers from the more casual — and less fair, though less costly — model of doing business. The JFREJ-DWU presentation last year at Temple Beth-El of Great Neck, said social action committee chairwoman Alice Fornari, did not get much of a response.

“The evening ends and then it’s over,” Fornari said. “Nobody talked to me about it afterward.”

Other social-action subjects — stopping the genocide in Darfur, for example — get a significant response from the whole community, said Rabbi Darcie Krystal, who with Fornari organized the social action Shabbat and was supportive of the domestic workers issue. With domestic help it’s a different matter.

“It’s a very risky topic for a social action Shabbat,” Fornari told me. “People don’t want it in their face.” People, she said, would rather hear about, say, Israel. In other words, things and places that are far away.

“I don’t think most people care about the rights of domestic workers,” Fornari said. “They don’t feel it’s a topic that’s relevant to their lives, even though the women they hire are taking care of their homes and their children. People don’t want to talk about it because they don’t want to do anything about it.”

It is a topic dear to her, Fornari said, because of her involvement with each of the housekeepers she has employed over the years in her own home. She helped one, who came from Bolivia not knowing any English, to get into college; the woman is now a teacher. Extensive interviews reveal that many Jewish employers have tried similarly to improve the individual lives of their housekeepers, to whom they’ve grown close; Fornari’s behavior, like Prager’s, is not an isolated phenomenon. Fornari is determined to continue the conversation that she started at Temple Beth-El. She would love to see a living room session in Great Neck.

Kirshenbaum described hosting such a meeting at a friend’s home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a neighborhood where a majority of the women pushing strollers on the streets look to be other than the babies’ mothers.

“There were perhaps 11 people there. We raised issues like the fact that if you go on vacation, you need to pay your domestic worker. And people said, ‘But no, if I’m going away, I shouldn’t have to pay.’ ”

“But then,” Kirshenbaum continued, “I could see people shifting categories, for the first time. It was like lightbulbs going on. These women had thought of their domestic workers as casual baby sitters, not as women who were counting on this salary to pay their own household bills. And now, they were suddenly realizing, ‘We are employers and they are our employees, and of course I get sick leave, so why shouldn’t they?'”

“There is no shame in hiring someone to work for us,” Kirshenbaum said. “The only shame is in not treating them well.”

This article is reprinted with permission from Lilith Magazine: Independent, Jewish & Frankly Feminist.

Exodus’ Trail of Woe


Just outside the gates of the Jewish aid compound in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a shantytown of decrepit tin shacks, overcrowded homes and debris-filled byways beckon the reticent visitor.

Barefoot children stumble amid the flotsam, part of the milieu of stray dogs, mule-drawn carts and mendicants that comprise the dusty street scene in this part of Addis Ababa.

Here, among the fetid smells and homes fashioned from scrap metal, live several thousand Falash Mura — Ethiopians linked to Jews whose progenitors converted to Christianity, but who now are returning to Judaism and bidding to immigrate to the Jewish state.

They’ve come here and to slums in the city of Gondar from their rural villages, abandoning their farms and occupations as blacksmiths, potters and weavers to live near the aid compounds and, more importantly, to be close to the Israeli officials in whose hands their fate rests.

Every month, about 300 of the luckier ones are selected to be taken to Israel. Once there, they are granted Israeli citizenship and taught Hebrew and Judaism, while residing in absorption centers. In due course, they are provided with about 90 percent of the funds they need to buy a home.

It is a generous package, and one that has more than a few Israelis and American Jews concerned that there will never be an end to the Ethiopian aliyah.

This fear — and stories of Ethiopians fabricating Jewish ties to escape Africa’s desperate poverty by way of a visa to Israel — has stalled plans to end mass Ethiopian immigration to Israel by the end of 2007.

The Israeli Cabinet decided in February 2003 to bring up to 26,000 Falash Mura remaining in Ethiopia to Israel. A year ago, Israel agreed to expedite the pace of aliyah — immigration to Israel — for the 20,000 the state was told remained, setting in place detailed procedures for an operation that would double the rate of aliyah to 600 persons a month, bringing over the total number of those deemed eligible by the end of 2007.

But so far, none of the plan’s key phases have been put in motion, a fact many attribute to the disappearance of the plan’s key political champion: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

“Sharon was the engine behind this. He pushed this through. He took the decisions. He set the timetable,” said Ori Konforti, the senior official in Ethiopia for the Jewish Agency for Israel, which is responsible for immigration to Israel. “Now there is no engine for this.”

A 36-hour visit to Ethiopia this month by a delegation of approximately 70 American Jewish federation leaders, including a delegation from Los Angeles, aimed to change that. The mission to Ethiopia came five months after the umbrella group of the North American federation system, the United Jewish Communities (UJC), launched Operation Promise, a $160 million campaign for overseas needs. Of that total, $100 million is to go for Ethiopian aliyah and absorption; the other $60 million is designated primarily for elder care in the former Soviet Union.

The goal of the five-day trip to Ethiopia and Israel was to motivate federation leaders to go out and raise the money needed to reach the $160 million goal. The Ethiopian project already was a centerpiece focus for one official on the trip, John Fishel, head of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

UJC’s hope is that moving forward on that pledge will prompt Israel to begin expediting the Ethiopian aliyah. So far, more than $45 million has been raised for the operation, according to UJC officials.

“The money needs to be there, and all the rest flows,” Howard Rieger, president and CEO of UJC, said in an interview at the time the pledge was made.

“Frankly, I think we came to the conclusion that we need to hold up our share of the bargain, so to speak, and by moving forward and taking this action — which we very much plan to implement — at least we’ve carried out our responsibility,” Rieger said. “Will the government carry out theirs? I hope and expect they will.”

Even if the $100 million for Ethiopian aliyah is raised quickly, the lion’s share of the burden will continue to rest squarely on Israel. On average, each Ethiopian immigrant costs the state approximately $100,000 over the course of a lifetime, according to Israeli government estimates. And more money for Ethiopian immigration means less money for Israel’s other pressing needs.

“It’s very difficult to absorb them, and there are so many poor Israelis who need help, too,” said Nachman Shai, director general of UJC Israel. “This will happen, but it will take time.”

Money will not solve some of the most significant problems that have riddled the Falash Mura aliyah since its inception in the early 1990s, after the final group of practicing Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel en masse in Operation Solomon in 1991. The conundrum of the Falash Mura aliyah is tied up with the questions of how many potential immigrants exist among Ethiopia’s 70 million citizens, how to stymie unqualified Ethiopians from emigrating to Israel and the cost of absorbing the immigrants.

The most important piece of the puzzle, by many accounts, is nailing down the final list of who is eligible for aliyah. That would enable Israel and American Jewry to close the chapter on mass Ethiopian aliyah and get a real sense of the total cost and scope of the project. Without such a list, officials fear, the number of Ethiopians seeking to emigrate to Israel will perpetually grow.

“If you ask me today how many people are waiting for aliyah, I can’t tell you how many,” acknowledged an Israeli Interior Ministry official working in Ethiopia.

The Interior Ministry is the Israeli government body charged with determining who is qualified to immigrate to the Jewish state.

“It’s hard for us to bring an answer,” the official said. “People are still in the villages who have not yet come.”

Last year, a special investigation by this reporter found indications of thousands of heretofore unknown Falash Mura in the Ethiopian hinterlands of Achefar, potentially adding thousands to the number of those seeking to immigrate to Israel.

“I hear stories about Israel from the elders,” said Guade Meles, 46, one of the Falash Mura living in the Ethiopian countryside. Guade — Ethiopians are known by their first names — is from the town of Ismallah, in Ethiopia’s rural Gojam province. “They told me there are benefits there. My cousins have gone to Israel. My wife’s brothers have gone to Israel.”

Other accounts exist of Falash Mura communities scattered elsewhere in the country, and there are many individual Ethiopians of Jewish descent living among non-Jews in places like the northern Ethiopian province of Tigray.

In the hovels of Addis Ababa and the mud-and-straw tukuls of rural Ethiopia, it’s difficult to sort out exactly who is and who isn’t Falash Mura.

The Ethiopians seeking to emigrate today call themselves Beta Israel, a caste designation associated with the smithing trades the Ethiopian Jews — known pejoratively as Falashas — traditionally performed during centuries of prohibition against land ownership.

While the Jewish state decided in the early 1980s to welcome Beta Israel who had kept their Jewish faith and identities — and facilitated their aliyah in Operations Moses and Solomon in 1984 and 1991 — Israel turned away the Beta Israel who had abandoned Judaism generations ago when their ancestors converted. These people are called Falash Mura.

Israel’s policy on the Falash Mura changed in the 1990s, largely due to advocacy by American Jews and vocal protests by relatives of the Falash Mura who had made it to Israel.

In the countryside of Gojam province, the Falash Mura can be found in clusters of mud-and-straw huts built amid eucalyptus trees. In one village, a pair of women are bent over incipient clay pots, their mud-covered hands shaping the wet earth into new jugs. Not far away, a few dozen men work barefoot in the field, cutting hay for the roof of their church.

Although they pray in a Christian church and hang pictures of the Virgin Mary in their home, these people call themselves Beta Israel. Many of them have relatives who have gone to Gondar and Addis Ababa, some of whom have since made it to Israel.

Those who have left their villages and gone to live in the cities, closer to where Israel’s representatives in Ethiopia work and live, say they have ceased their Christian practices. Some of them don yarmulkes while in the Jewish aid compounds, many take lessons in Judaism and all hope that embracing the Jewish faith will help get them to the Jewish state.

Abeyna Worku, 33, came to Gondar from the nearby village of Alefa four years ago. Most of Alefa’s residents have left for Gondar, but about 200 remain in the village, he said.

“Most of my relatives are in Israel, and I want to join them,” Abeyna said. “Israel is good since it’s the promised land from our grandparents.”

It is difficult to prove the Jewish heritage of these Ethiopians, most of whom were practicing Christians until they were told they needed to embrace Judaism to be eligible for aliyah. As a result, they are not petitioning to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandparent.

Rather, Israeli officials are verifying whether the Falash Mura qualify for aliyah under Israel’s Law of Entry, a humanitarian law designed to enable relatives of Israelis to immigrate to the Jewish state. So rather than having to come up with documents proving they are Jews, which nobody in Ethiopia has, these Ethiopians are trying to prove they are the immediate relatives of Ethiopians already in Israel.

That also means that some of those seeking to qualify under the Law of Entry are not Jews at all, but Christian relatives of Jews. Some estimate these Christians constitute up to 30 percent of Ethiopian olim or immigrants.

Habtu Gidyelew, 32, is one of those people. He married an Ethiopian Israeli six months ago and now hopes to join her in Israel. She moved to Israel 15 years ago, and the couple met during her visits back to Ethiopia.

“I met her three years ago,” Habtu said. “I want to be with her because I love her.”

The eligibility verification process for Ethiopian aliyah is slow and painstaking, and it is plagued by the problems of trying to verify who is related to whom when there are no birth certificates or written records. It also requires running an operation simultaneously in Israel and Ethiopia and weeding out the liars from the truth-tellers among people who know that demonstrating one’s ties to Jewish kin is a way to get a free ticket out of Africa, automatic Israeli citizenship and access to a broad array of social services in Israel.

More than 75,000 Ethiopians have immigrated to Israel since the early 1980s. Because it is so costly to absorb these immigrants in Israel, this means the stakes are extremely high both for Israel and for the Ethiopians seeking aliyah.

At the moment, it is American Jews like the federation leaders on the mission who are trying to grease the wheels of the aliyah operation.

“I think the government plan that was approved was a good plan, and I think it needs to be implemented,” said Barry Shrage, head of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

“The worst thing that happens is they take them out, and there’ll be another 20,000,” Shrage said. “But I’m not going to be suicidal if in the end it’s 40,000.”

That sort of attitude is precisely what worries officials in Israel, who will have to bear the burden of absorbing the immigrants.

Some of the Falash Mura’s advocates — namely American Jews and Ethiopian family members and community leaders already in Israel — accuse the Israeli government of indifference or racism in dragging its feet on accepting these Ethiopians as immigrants.

There are Ethiopians who have been waiting in Addis Ababa and Gondar for as long as eight years, impoverished by the loss of their livelihoods in their move to the city, susceptible to the HIV-infected prostitutes that ply their trade on the city’s streets at night and dependent on assistance like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s feeding program for young mothers and their babies.

For their part, many Israelis, including some Ethiopians, blame the Falash Mura’s advocates with creating this state of ongoing misfortune. These critics say groups like the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), which has been the primary advocacy and aid group for Ethiopian aliyah in the last decade and receives funding from Jewish federations, created a crisis of internal displacement in Ethiopia by maintaining their aid compounds.

By doing that, NACOEJ has tacitly or intentionally given Ethiopians with no knowledge of their Jewish lineage the expectation that they will be able to get to Israel if they move to the cities and turned communities of self-sustaining farmers and craftsmen into aid-dependent internal refugees, impoverished and condemned to a hardscrabble urban life.

NACOEJ rejects such arguments, saying that if not for its work, not only would Beta Israel migrants starve in the cities while awaiting aliyah, they also would be far less prepared for life in the Jewish state once they arrived there.

This claim is belied, however, by the current situation in Addis Ababa, where the community continues to survive despite the closure of NACOEJ’s compound there about 18 months ago, following legal troubles. Those troubles prompted Ethiopia’s Justice Ministry to bar the group from operating in Addis Ababa .

Privately, some Jewish officials herald this as a positive development, because they say that NACOEJ’s advocacy has helped swell the number of Ethiopian petitioners seeking to immigrate to Israel. Both these American Jews and officials in Israel worry that once the Falash Mura now in Gondar and Addis Ababa emigrate, thousands more will show up and demand to be taken to Israel.

“We’ll take these 20,000, and then there’ll be more,” said one senior American Jewish organizational official who asked not to be identified. “This could be 1998 all over again.”

In 1998, Israel’s government held a ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport welcoming what then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heralded as the last planeload of Falash Mura to arrive in Israel. A month later, 8,000 more people poured into NACOEJ’s compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar demanding to be taken to Israel. The number soon swelled to 14,000.

This time, having learned some of the lessons of 1998, Israel plans to have the Jewish Agency take over the NACOEJ compounds, which provide food aid, schooling and some employment but not places to live. The goal is to shut the compounds down as soon as the current group of immigrants, now estimated at 13,000 to 17,000, are brought to Israel.

Acknowledging that U.S. Jewish federations had a role in keeping the compounds open in 1998, Robert Goldberg, chairman of the UJC, said, “In some way, we’ve encouraged these people to come. Nobody’s perfect. We do our best, and we have the best of intentions.”

Now, Goldberg said, “The compounds have to be closed.”

“What I would like to see is all of them come in a weekend,” Goldberg said of the Ethiopians awaiting aliyah. “If you can prepare everything in Israel, you don’t have to wait and bring out 600 a month. You can bring them all out. I’m going to push for it.

“Unless there’s a good plan to end it, there will be more,” he warned. “We don’t even know if they’re telling the truth. They just want to get out of here.”

One thing seems certain: The longer it takes to close the chapter on mass Ethiopian immigration to Israel, the more immigrants, there will be. That infuses the current push to speed up the aliyah process. And for the first time in a long time, it seems that many of the necessary ingredients are in place to accelerate the aliyah of the Falash Mura and write the last chapter on Ethiopian immigration to Israel.

The Jewish Agency has trained 40 to 60 workers to take over the aid compounds in Gondar and Addis Ababa from NACOEJ, which has promised to cease its advocacy work for Ethiopian aliyah once the expedited aliyah process begins.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry signed a deal with the Ethiopian government last fall on coordinating the aliyah eligibility verification process, and Israel’s Finance Ministry says it has allocated an extra $45 million for the accelerated aliyah operation in 2006. But Israel’s government has not yet given the green light to begin the operation, and nobody is quite able to say why.

The Interior Ministry blames the Finance Ministry. The Finance Ministry says it is waiting for the government to decide on an exact date. In one sign of the mishandling of this issue by the Israelis, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry recently declared that the expedited aliyah already had begun. It had not.

Many observers say the accelerated aliyah will not commence until the prime minister himself gives word. Earlier this month, Israel’s acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, canceled a meeting in Israel with the American delegation that had visited Ethiopia. By all accounts, Ethiopian aliyah is far down the list of priorities for a state dealing with a comatose prime minister, upcoming elections and a new Hamas terrorist state on its doorstep.

Meanwhile, the Falash Mura continue to wait in Ethiopia, their fate in the hands of faraway Jews in New York and Jerusalem.

 

Letters


Mensches, Menschen

The plural of “mensch” has always been “menschen” (“Mensches: Some Big-Hearted Angelenos You Would Be Proud to Know,” Jan. 6). Come Purim, will we read about “hamentasches”?

I was impressed, though, by the dedication of those featured in the accompanying article.

Ruth L. Brown
Los Angeles

I do not profess to be a Yiddish linguist, but I learned my Yiddish in the Sholem Aleichem Folk Shul in Perth Amboy, N.J., about 65 years ago, where everyone knew that the plural of “mensch” was “menschen.” Please tell me whether or not I’m correct.

Marv Frankel
Los Angeles

Ed. Note: According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the plural of “mensch” is either “mensches” or “menschen.” We chose the style closer to English, but feel free to come by and discuss it over some beigelech and blintschikes.

Interfaith Celebrations

We were disappointed by your editorial/news story, “Tis Never the Season for Chrismukkah” (Dec. 23), with its premise that interfaith or intercultural celebrations shouldn’t be tolerated.

The predictable seasonal staple about how children are confused by joint celebrations provided no evidence to support that conclusion. It was a missed opportunity.

Instead of probing how Jewish communities can respond sensitively to the growing number of intercultural or interfaith families, it adopted the contemptuous tone articulated by Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who dismisses those who want to combine holidays as “totally ignorant,” misguided and misinformed. By disparaging and discounting non-Jewish members of intermarried families, Jewish leaders put their heads in the sand and push them away.

In our secular Jewish organization, the Sholem Community (www.sholem.org), we’ve welcomed intercultural families who have been made to feel uncomfortable at synagogues.

We don’t ask non-Jewish family members to reject their backgrounds. We discuss how family members can honor each other’s heritages with respect and understanding. We explore common cultural themes in seasonal festivals, and we’ve seen how families can observe loving and warm, respectful celebrations.

This approach doesn’t work for everyone but is appropriate for people whose outlook is cultural and secular. Instead of the my-way-or-the-highway approach, families who honor each other’s cultures and traditions can enrich their own experiences, their humanity and connect themselves and their loved ones to their Jewishness.

Jeffrey Kaye
Katherine James
Alan Blumenfeld
The Sholem Community

IRS Charge

In his opinion piece, “IRS Errs on Endorsing Candidate Charge” (Jan. 6), Rabbi John Rosove correctly observes that the Tax Code prohibits, at the risk of loss of tax exemption, intervention by synagogues and other charities “in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

It does not prohibit all political activities. Charities, including synagogues, can take positions on legislation — that is lobby — so long as their lobbying activity is not substantial. (Positions on initiatives and referenda, as well as positions on nominees to the federal judiciary, are considered lobbying.) Moreover, these organizations can take positions on questions of public policy without limit.

Thus, even had Rabbi Rosove named leaders in his erev Rosh Hashanah sermon in October 2005, he would not have violated the campaign prohibition, since no election was looming. Nonetheless, since he did not mention any leader’s name, Rabbi Rosove could have offered this same sermon just days before an election without any violation of the prohibition.

In unofficial guidance, the IRS has treated discussions of issues of public policy without mention of candidates’ names as falling outside of the category of campaign intervention.

Ellen Aprill
Past President
Temple Israel of Hollywood
John E. Anderson Professor of Tax Law
Loyola Law School

Orthodox Women

I write in response to Amy Klein’s thoughtful article on “Orthodox But Not Monolithic” (Jan. 6). While your reporter generally presented both the spirit and the substance of my remarks on the issue of women in Orthodox Jewish communal life, I was misquoted as stating that no women currently serve on the board of the Orthodox Union (OU).

While I noted that there are currently no women officers in the OU, I did not suggest that there aren’t any women board members. I know better than that. My wife, Vivian, is one of the most active members of the OU’s Board of Governors.

David Luchins
OU National Vice President

Illegal Immigration

Like every apologist for illegal immigration, Rob Eshman makes a case for “assimilation” of the undocumented, while ignoring the wholesale violation of our laws and sovereignty that got us into a fiscal and social quagmire (“The Slop Sink,” Dec. 30).

According to the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., the net cost of public benefits and services for illegal immigrants in California is $10 billion a year — a structured deficit that no one in Sacramento is willing to address. L.A. County public hospitals lose $340 million a year providing uncompensated care for undocumented immigrants.

Here’s the kicker: The proposed Totalization Agreement with Mexico will provide Social Security benefits to Mexican nationals and, by extension, illegal immigrants. The price tag: $345 billion over 20 years.

Les Hammer
Los Angeles

Winter Break

Jennifer Garmaise’s article (“Taking Winter Break on Jewish Time,” Dec. 30) did not address the logistical and economic impact that shifting winter vacations to late January has on families of moderate means. Far from “disrupting vacation plans,” moving winter vacation from late December poses a serious challenge to parents who work outside the Jewish community, particularly single parents and those families where both parents must work in order to make ends meet.

Many of these parents hoard their sick leave and vacation time in order to take off for Yom Tov. Taking a week off in January (when alternative forms of child care are not available) in order to care for children out of school poses a financial hardship and, sometimes, a barrier to employment altogether. It is also difficult to see what educational or religious benefit the children gain from this week.

Giving the children a week’s break at Chanukah (as is done in Israel) would not completely solve the child care issue, but at least it has a logical Jewish rationale. Starting winter break on Dec. 26 would comply with Rabbi Feinstein’s ruling, while alleviating the child care situation.

Offering affordable day camps would also go a long way toward addressing the needs of ordinary working parents who sacrifice in order to send their children to Orthodox Jewish day schools.

Miriam Caiden
Los Angeles

 

The Same Boat


Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros once gave a speech about the tremendous growth of the Latino population in the United States.

"I hear what you’re saying," a non-Latino woman in the audience said, her voice filled with anxiety. "But can’t anybody do anything about it?"

Cisneros, who in 1981 became the first Latino mayor of a major U.S. city (San Antonio), didn’t share her fear. The enormous growth of the Latino population in the United States — and especially in the Los Angeles region — presents many challenges, but it also offers many opportunities. Not least among the latter is the opportunity for coalitions with other groups, like, for instance, us.

Many people in the Jewish community, to their credit, get this. Yuval Rotem, Israel’s ambassador to the Western United States, initiated a series of formal and informal gatherings with Latino and Jewish activists and politicians, including Cisneros and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys). This year, as in 2002, these culminated in a twilight cruise aboard Fantasea Charter Yachts out of Marina del Rey.

"The Jewish community has always understood it doesn’t have the numbers, and it has to be in alliance with people who do," Cisneros said during his speech on the cruise. "There is a practical reason to make common cause."

Here are a few other reasons: one out of every three Californians is of Latino descent. One out of every two kindergarten students is of Latino descent. There are 35 million Latinos in the United States. By 2050 there will be 100 million. By 2010 more than half Los Angeles’ population will be Latino.

Some see this reality not as a common cause but as a common threat.

In his new book "Who Are We?" Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington argues that Latino immigrants threaten America’s values, identity and way of life. In the March/April issue of Foreign Policy, Huntington presented the heart of his argument: that the contiguity, scale, illegality, regional concentration, persistence and historical presence of Hispanics in America make this immigration an imminent threat. Latinos are slow to assimilate, he argued, and the end result will be "a country of two languages and two cultures."

Huntington’s conclusions are highly arguable, and, to my mind, ultimately unpersuasive (for the piquant back-and-forth, visit www.foreignpolicy.com). He acknowledges that by the second generation, the overwhelming majority of Latinos — 93 percent, to be exact — are primarily English speaking.

Beyond that, as New America Foundation’s Gregory Rodriguez has long pointed out, Latinos are not a monolithic ethnic group, and have never built "parallel ethnic institutions," as have Jews and other minorities, or supported a separatist movement. Rodriguez wrote that Huntington ignores "Mexicans’ history of racial and cultural blending and the reams of survey data that show Mexican Americans place great faith in U.S. institutions."

The problem is not the numbers, but our fear of these numbers, and our lack of preparedness.

"Jews in Los Angeles can pull away from public schools and put gates on their communities," Berman said on the cruise, "but little by little the demographic and political complexion of our community is changing. For us to turn to a strategy of insularity when the country is changing is very dangerous."

We can choose not to engage for now, but the price for that will be grave. How well we manage the growth and change depends on how quickly we can fix four broken systems in our region — healthcare, housing, transportation and education — and how carefully we manage a fifth: our environment. Whatever coalitions we form should plunge headlong into these issues. Immigrants don’t trek to Los Angeles to become better Mexicans or Guatemalans; they come to be Americans. Improving these systems makes that task easier and faster.

Reading Huntington’s article put me in the mood, as theoretical treatises usually do, for reality. So last Sunday I took my daughter to Fiesta Broadway, the largest Cinco de Mayo celebration in America. The street was closed to traffic for several blocks, and filled with 500,000 people. As far as I could tell, two of them were Jewish — us — and not many more were non-Latino.

They crowded around hundreds of booths offering product samples of everything from Wishbone dressing to Lactaid. They ate hot dogs and tamales. I didn’t see Samuel Huntington there, but no doubt he would have had a different perception of this uninterrupted flow of humanity. He might have seen a "beachhead," as he put it, of a half-million potential separatists. I saw a half-million Americans, which is to say, eager consumers.

"American Jews have taught us how to be part of America and still maintain our culture," Cisneros said. "These things happen in the American Jewish community not accidentally but because of planning and resolution."

With planning and resolution, Latino-Jewish coalitions can be instrumental in proving Huntington’s worst fears wrong. Because just as we were on the evening of Rotem’s cruise, we are all on the same boat.

Happy Cinco de Mayo.

World Briefs


Israel Lifts BBC Ban

Israel said it would resume ties with the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), which recently named an ombudsman to oversee its Middle East coverage. Israeli officials long have charged pro-Palestinian bias in the BBC’s coverage. Israel stopped cooperating with the BBC last summer after it repeatedly aired a TV show about Israel’s nuclear program that implied Israel was a rogue state.

Pollard Loses Again

A U.S. judge rejected a claim by convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. On Nov. 13, Judge Thomas Hogan dismissed a claim by Pollard, who was convicted of spying for Israel, that his previous lawyers did not do all they could to free him. Hogan also denied a request by Pollard’s lawyers to gain access to classified documents that could help his release. Pollard, a former U.S. Navy analyst, is serving a life sentence in a U.S. jail.

AMIA Extradition Denied

A former Iranian diplomat accused of helping bomb an Argentine Jewish center will not be extradited to stand trial. A British judge ruled last week that there was not enough evidence to extradite Hadi Soleimanpour to Argentina.

The Iranian diplomat was arrested earlier this year in Britain for suspected involved in the 1994 car bombing of the AMIA center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. Soleimanpour was Iran’s ambassador to Argentina at the time of the attack.

Meanwhile, Argentina’s Justice Ministry confirmed that suspicious Swiss bank accounts connected to former Argentine President Carlos Menem have been found, but none that connect Menem to a multimillion-dollar bribe he allegedly received from Iran to hinder a probe into the bombing.

Orthodox to Meet on Singles ‘Crisis’

The National Council of Young Israel will hold its third annual “Shidduch Emergency Conference” in New York. The annual event will address issues related to finding a mate, such as overcoming obstacles to commitment, medical and genetic issues to consider, developing empathy between singles and married people, Internet matchmaking and coping with the emotional strain of break-ups, divorce and broken engagements. The conference will be held Nov. 23 at Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue.

Aliyah Infomercials Set

TV infomercials touting immigration to Israel will run across North America. Nefesh B’Nefesh, or “Jewish Souls United,” which seeks to boost North American immigration to Israel, said it plans to buy spots on family and religious cable and satellite networks to run a 30-minute advertisement called “Israel: Homeward Bound,” touting a “bold new wave” of aliyah. Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, the group’s executive director, said the ads will begin airing next week and will run for several months. The group claims to have brought 1,500 people to Israel this year and last, and is hoping to form a “significant partnership” with Israeli agencies.

Yarmulkes Out in France

French Jewish children should wear regular hats, instead of yarmulkes, to avoid anti-Semites, France’s chief rabbi said. On Tuesday, Joseph Sitruk told Radio Shalom, a Jewish community radio station, that he didn’t want young people “isolated in the metro or on suburban trains to risk becoming a target for aggressors any more than I want our young Jews to respond and become the aggressors themselves.”

Sitruk’s comments followed a new outbreak of anti-Semitic incidents in France.

Security Council Endorses ‘Road Map’

The U.N. Security Council endorsed the “road map” peace plan, with U.S. backing. Some Jewish leaders fear the resolution will make Israel vulnerable to diplomatic sanctions if the peace process falters. The resolution passed Wednesday and calls on the parties to “fulfill their obligations under the road map in cooperation with the Quartet,” the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations. Those four drafted the road map. The resolution also demands “an immediate cessation of all acts of violence, including acts of terrorism, provocation, incitement and destruction.” Security Council resolutions have the force of international law, and Jewish leaders worry that Arab nations will claim Israeli actions violate the new resolution.

“When you have Syria and other unfriendly and hostile countries, you can see the potential for mischief and abuse,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Fear and Loathing in ‘America’


Iris Bahr is pretty, but you could watch her for the full
span of her 54-minute one-woman production and still manage to miss that.Â

With the help of a masculine hairdo (she cut her hair for
the show, and wears it slicked back) and some minimal wardrobe changes, Bahr
morphs into no less than seven different characters, each with individual, and
often hilarious, accents. The show is called “Planet America, or Are You
Carrying Any Fruits of Vegetables?” and Bahr’s characters bring differing
perspectives to the themes of American isolationism, xenophobia and racism.Â

The issues are particularly timely, but for Bahr, who was
recently nominated for an L.A. Weekly best solo performance award, they were
also personal. She said she’d finished the first draft prior to the Sept. 11
terror attacks. Growing up in Riverdale, N.Y., and Herzliya, Israel, she said,
“I have the advantage of having lived in two very different cultures.” It made
her conscious of issues like terrorism and immigration long ago.

The homogeneity of Israeli society when compared with
heterogeneous America was something else that resonated with her. So was the
American term for illegal immigrants: “aliens.”

The story centers around Violet Star, a repressed
25-year-old virgin, who aspires to work for the Immigration and Naturalization
Service to help rid her country of “hypersexed Latin sluts” like the one whom
she blames for her parents’ divorce. Her first day on the job brings encounters
with a colorful bunch. It also includes many telephone calls from her nagging
Israeli mother, who, to Violet’s acute distress, also happens to be a recent
and enthusiastic Christian convert.Â

The exaggerated characters emphasize various points.
Muscovite Svetlana reminds Violet that “you only have one mother.” Black-hatted
Yankel tells of his rebbe’s favorite isolationist saying, “If curiosity kills
the cat, it slaughters the Jew.” Paraplegic Jimmy O’Riordan’s brogued verbal
seductions reveal to Violet her own handicaps.

In the end, Bahr’s appearance may get lost to her
characters, but her piece still bears a personal stamp. “I’m not kind of
wishy-washy and new agey. I don’t think everyone could get along,” she said.
“It’s really hard not to sound preachy,” but one message is that “isolation is
a basic part of the human condition and it’s common to everyone.”

8 p.m. $15. Tuesdays through Feb. 4 at the Elephant Theatre,
6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 858-7535.