Photo from Flickr/Gage Skidmore.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signs anti-BDS executive order

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed an executive order on Friday that forbids the state government from conducting business with companies that boycott Israel. Wisconsin is the 24th state to do so.

The executive order, Executive Order #261, denounced the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as serving “to inflame conflict” and noted that Wisconsin and Israel have “a robust trading relationship.”

Walker said in a statement, “We stand firmly against discrimination in any form and we wholly support our friends in Israel. I look forward to leading a trade delegation to Israel to foster new trade partnerships between Wisconsin and Israeli businesses.”

The former presidential candidate will be going to Israel on Friday.

Walker also expressed a support for a bill in the state legislature that “would prohibit any entity in state government or local government from adopting a rule, ordinance, policy, or procedure that involves the entity in a boycott of Israel, or a boycott of a person doing business in Israel or in a territory under Israeli jurisdiction,” according to

Various Jewish organizations praised Walker for his executive order in a press release issued by Wisconsin Jewish Federations.

“Governor Walker and the State of Wisconsin have firmly taken a stand against the BDS movement and its discriminatory policies against Israeli businesses and individuals, which undermines Middle East peace,” said William Daroff, senior vice president of the Jewish Federations of North America.

“We thank Governor Walker and all the state legislators who have shown leadership on this issue,” said Michael Blumenfeld, director of the Wisconsin Jewish Conference. “The state Jewish community has had significant concerns about the impact of BDS. This order addresses and satisfies the issue.”

Scott Walker’s inflammatory Chanukah cocktail

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has brought a whole new meaning to the notion of kindling the Chanukah flames.

When Walker, who is a top-tier contender for the GOP presidential nomination, was Milwaukee county executive, he sent a letter to one of his Jewish constituents offering support for setting up a Chabad Chanukah menorah at the local courthouse. Walker concluded by wishing the constituent “Molotov.”

(According to the Madison Capital Times, which first reported the letter’s existence, it was uncovered by the liberal group One Wisconsin Now while sorting through a massive document dump from one of two separate criminal investigations into campaign finance shenanigans by Walker and his circle.)

Now, although Molotov cocktails are popular firestarters among certain groups, they tend not to be associated with Chanukah candles, nor do they fit with the governor’s law-and-order image. The natural assumption here would be that Walker’s intention was to wish the letter’s recipient, Milwaukee attorney Franklyn Gimbel, a frie “mazel tov,” and that the invocation of Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov was simply a hilarious mistake. Or auto-correct disaster.


But we shouldn’t rush to judgment. It is entirely possible, or at least highly entertaining to pretend, that the sign-off of “Molotov” has some deeper meaning.

Consider: Molotov was married to a Jewish wife, Polina Zhemchuzhina. Was Walker trying to quietly signal that he likewise harbors a deep and personal connection to the Jewish people?

Or: Molotov famously put his name to the reviled Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that temporarily allied the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany. Was Walker subtly warning Gimbel to be careful of foolish alliances — perhaps with Milwaukee’s Democratic mayor, who would face off against Walker for the governorship in 2010?

Or maybe: Walker was reminding Gimbel that it was the October Revolution, led by Bolsheviks like Molotov, that had driven the Chabad Lubavitch leadership to flee their Russian home of Lyubavitsch, starting them on the long journey that eventually brought some of their representatives to the friendly confines of Milwaukee County. What better way to tutor Gimbel on the importance of cultivating strong allies?

It may even be that Walker was offering Gimbel a Midrashic illustration of the ways in which the seemingly small flames of the Chanukah candles can ignite and spread like a Molotov cocktail, spreading their illuminating wisdom with shocking intensity.

We just don’t know. But this letter has sparked our interest, and we at The Telegraph intend to investigate. We have burning questions for you, Gov. Walker, so quit Stalin and give us some answers.

A Shabbat prayer for the victims of the Sikh shooting

This prayer was written to recite for the victims and survivors of the Aug. 5 shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin.  Rabbi Naomi Levy, spiritual leader of Nashuva, wrote the prayer on behalf of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, which distributed it to congregations around the world.

Let Us Stand Up Together (נעמדה יחד)
–From our Haftarah this Shabbat, the second Haftarah of comfort (Isaiah 50:8)

We stand together in grief
For the innocent victims
Of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin
Who perished in their house of prayer.
May their memories be a blessing,
May their lights shine brightly on us.

We stand together in mourning
For broken hearts,
The senseless loss, the shock, the emptiness.

We stand together in outrage,
Weary of this war-torn hate-filled world.
And together we pray:

Send comfort, God, to grieving families,
Hear their cries.
Fill them with the courage
To carry on in the face of this tragic loss.
Send healing to the wounded,
Lift them up, ease their pain,
Restore them to strength, to hope, to life.
Gather the sacred souls of the slaughtered
Into Your eternal shelter,
Let them find peace in Your presence, God.

Work through us, God,
Show us how to help.
Open our hearts so we can comfort the mourning,
Open our arms so we can extend our hands,
Transform our helplessness into action,
Turn the prayers of our souls into acts of kindness and compassion.

Let us stand up together
Our young and our old,
All races and faiths,
All people and nations.
Rise up above hatred
And cruelty and indifference.
Let us live up to our goodness
Let us learn from this tragedy
Let us walk together
Filled with hope
On a path of peace, Amen.

– by Rabbi Naomi Levy

In Wisconsin, Jews seek ways to help Sikhs after Milwaukee shooting

Almost as soon as she heard the news about a deadly shooting at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee, Elana Kahn-Oren’s phone started ringing.

As director of the Jewish Community Relations Council at the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, Kahn-Oren fielded call after call from concerned area Jews asking what they could do to help.

“We have to make sure to be respectful of the Sikh community and to make sure that we find appropriate avenues to express that support,” Kahn-Oren told JTA.

A day after Sunday’s shooting, the federation was offering counseling services, had opened a mailbox to receive donations for assisting with the financial needs of the victims and their families, and was in talks with the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee to figure out a way to bring religious leaders together for an interfaith prayer service.

[Related: Board of Rabbis stands with Sikh community after shooting]

“Coming together after events like these reaffirms the values of the community,” Kahn-Oren said. “This goes against our moral fiber.”

The assailant killed six people, including the president of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, in Oak Creek, before being shot dead by police. On Monday, police identified the shooter as Wade M. Page, a U.S. Army veteran with ties to white supremacist groups.

Jacob Herber of Congregation Beth Israel said the Milwaukee synagogue’s weekday minyan would be holding a moment of silence to commemorate and express solidarity with the victims, just as the minyan does when Jews are attacked around the world.

“Unfortunately, because we have experienced through much of our history bigotry, hatred and anti-Semitism, this event is very acute for us in its pain,” Herber said. “That’s why I think we feel not only the obligation but the real personal, profound emotion of wanting to reach out to the Sikh community.”

Linda Holifield, executive director of Congregation Shalom in Milwaukee, said the shooter’s targeting of a place of worship was particularly upsetting.

“When one place of worship is targeted, it suggests then that any place of worship could be a target,” she said.

Tom Heinen, executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, said the tragedy has really hit home because of the tight-knit nature of the community in Milwaukee.

“Milwaukee is in many respects a large village where many people of many faiths are interconnected personally, professionally and socially,” he said. “At a time like this, we need to come together as a community to reassert our common values and to comfort those who have suffered grievous losses.”

Religious groups urge understanding following Sikh Temple shooting

Religious groups are calling for tolerance after six people were killed in a shooting attack at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin.

The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism have joined with Shoulder to Shoulder, a national religious, faith-based and interfaith organization, to encourage Americans to join special services with their local Sikh communities in the wake of Sunday’s shooting outside of Milwaukee.

“As we wait for further information regarding the motive of the shooter, we reiterate our deep commitment to a United States that is able to tolerate and respect the many religious traditions that live together in this great country,” Christina Warner, campaign director for Shoulder to Shoulder, said in a statement. “The tragedy in Milwaukee shows painfully the need for Americans of all faiths to learn about one another and embrace the diverse religious tapestry of the United States.”

Along with the deaths, at least three people, including a police officer, were injured in the attack.

The Anti-Defamation League condemned the violence and reached out to the Sikh community at a national level to express concern, condolences and solidarity, as well as offer its resources and guidance on institutional security and response in the aftermath of a hate crime.

“Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, ADL and law enforcement officials have documented many apparent ‘backlash crimes’ directed at Muslim, Sikh, and Arab Americans,” said ADL National Director Abraham Foxman. “We have raised concern about a spike in bigotry against Muslims and others perceived to be of Middle Eastern origin. This attack is another gruesome reminder that bigotry and hate against those whose religion makes them ‘different’ or ‘other’ can have deadly consequences.”

The U.S. Department of Justice has investigated more than 800 incidents since 9/11 involving violence, threats, vandalism and arson against Arab Americans, Muslims, Sikhs, South-Asian Americans and other individuals perceived to be of Middle Eastern origin.

Voluntary recall issued for some kosher shredded cheeses

The World Cheese Co., producer of Haolam and Miller’s kosher cheese products, issued a voluntary recall of some shredded cheese packaged in a Wisconsin plant.

It is the first time in 110 years that the company has issued a recall, according to a statement on the company’s Web site.

The recall comes after a packaging facility in Wisconsin that handles the shredding and packaging, and not production, of some Miller’s shredded products also packaged a different company’s cheese that was found to contain the deadly bacteria Listeria monocytogenes.

Miller’s products packaged in the same plant all tested negative for the bacteria.

The state of Wisconsin requested the voluntary recall of all the products shredded in the plant following the discovery of the bacteria, according to World Cheese.

“By next week, stores will be stocked with freshly packed shredded products that meet the highest standards of kashrus and quality that you’ve been accustomed to receiving from us in the past,” a company statement said. “The products will be produced in a new shredding and packaging facility where we have exclusive control over the cheese that is brought into the facility.”

The recalled cheeses are all 8-ounce and 16-ounce bags of Miller’s shredded cheese (pizza, mozzarella, cheddar, fancy, muenster), with an expiration of June 5, 2012, through Sept. 4, 2012; all 32-ounce bags of Miller’s shredded mozzarella with an expiration date of Feb. 6, 2012, through May 7, 2012; and all 5-pound bags of Miller’s shredded mozzarella, cheddar, muenster and Monterey Jack with a package date of Sept. 8, 2011, through Dec. 7, 2011.

Russ Feingold will not run for Senate or Wisconsin governor

Former senator Russ Feingold has taken himself out of contention for both a Wisconsin Senate seat and a run for governor.

In an email to supporters Friday morning, Feingold explained that he wanted to devote himself to teaching at Marquette Law School, where has been working since leaving the Senate; finishing a book he is authoring, and leading his political committee.

“While I may seek elective office again someday, I have decided not to run for public office during 2012,” Feingold said in the email.

The move is a blow to Democrats. Polls had shown Feingold, who lost his Senate seat in 2010, to be a favorite against potential Republican candidates in the 2012 race to fill the seat now occupied by retiring Senator Herb Kohl, a fellow Jewish Democrat.

With Kohl’s retirement, and Feingold declining to run, Wisconsin may lack a Jewish senator for the first time since 1989.

The Triangle Waist Factory fire and the laws of holiness

This week, in Parashah Shmini, we learn the laws of Kashrut.  We often think of Kashrut as a hoq, a mysterious commandment that we follow only because our Torah says that God wants us to.  But Kashrut is also a mishpat, a commandment informed by values and virtues that we can comprehend; in this case, an abhorrence of cruelty. Not only may we not eat, and thereby develop a thirst for, blood; we may not slaughter in a cruel way, because we care about tzar baalei chayim, the suffering of living creatures.

The tradition acknowledges that we need to eat in order to live, but it also governs how we fulfill that need.  There is no aspect of our lives, not even within the ordinary workday world, which is unmarked by our commitment to holiness. That holiness is lived out in the context of our relationships, be it with the rest of creation, with other people and with God.

This means that a kosher butcher runs a business within a regulated marketplace.
The butcher has the right to earn a living—there is nothing wrong with working hard and earning a profit honorably—but there are some corners which may not be cut.

This principle applies to all business dealings.  If we may not be cruel to the other animals, then, all the more so, we may not be cruel to people.

We learn in Brachot 19b and Shabbat 94b that, “Human dignity is very great in that it supersedes even negative commandments (“shalt nots”) from our Torah.”  This is why so much of our Talmud concerns contract law.  A contract, a brit, is an agreement of mutual obligation between human beings, each of whom is a representative of the One in Whose image we are made and is therefore deserving of respect.

This Shabbat will mark the 100th secular anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire.  On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at a garment factory in which the workers, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrant women were working on the upper floors, where doors were locked to keep workers inside and union organizers out.  The one fire escape soon collapsed. 146 workers are killed and over 500 are injured by burns, smoke inhalation and injuries suffered after jumping from the building to escape the flames.

This fire followed the historic Uprising of the 20,000 in 1909 in which women garment workerswent on strike for higher wages, safer working conditions and—most critically, the right to collective bargaining, to the establishment of contracts between workers and management guaranteeing mutual rights and obligations.  When the strike ended, most companies, including Triangle, had agreed to some but not to collective bargaining.  Two of the strikers’ demands which had not been met were improved fire escapes and unlocked doors.

After the fire, Rabbi Steven S. Wise said, “The lesson of the hour is that while property is good, life is better, that while possessions are valuable, life is priceless. The meaning of the hour is that the life of the lowliest worker in the nation is sacred and inviolable, and, if that sacred human right be violated, we shall stand adjudged and condemned before the tribunal of God and of history.”

The hopeful news is that from the ashes of the fire rose a stronger union and also the Factory Investigating Commission of New York state which pioneered many labor reforms, including improved fire safety.  But in this current era, those gains are in jeopardy, because all unions, as we have seen in Wisconsin, are under attack, and many garment jobs are outsourced overseas.

Today, the fire still burns.  In 2010 alone, there were two major factory fires in Bangladesh that were eerily reminiscent of the Triangle disaster.  Workers were trapped upstairs in locked rooms without adequate fire protection or escape and, as with Triangle, they died of burns or jumped to their deaths to avoid being burned alive.  These factories supply clothing to H&M, The Gap, JC Penny and other popular retailers.

We as consumers have the power to change things.  After the fires in Bangladesh, the voices raised through the Clean Clothes Campaign pressured retail outlets to agree to police the safety conditions at their contracted factories.

Returning to our parashah, we learn in Leviticus 10:10, “You must distinguish between holy and ordinary, between pure and impure.”  This applies to the clothes we put on our bodies as much as to the food we put inside them. If we are careful of human dignity, we infuse even the most mundane details of daily life with holiness.

Workers at home need the support of ethical consumers as well. Please visit the Progressive Jewish Alliance’s website to download more information about the Triangle fire and to find out what you can do to support today’s garments workers’ fight for human dignity.

We invite you to bring this important story to your synagogue or shabbes table this weekend.

On Wisconsin, Fight, Fight, Fight

During his 1948 presidential campaign against underdog Democrat Harry S. Truman, Republican Thomas E. Dewey was on the campaign trail. As a crowd surged toward the back of his train, an irritated Dewey told the crowd, “That’s the first lunatic I’ve had for an engineer. He probably should be shot at sunrise, but we’ll let him off this time since nobody was hurt.” Lee Tindle, the 54-year-old engineer, told a reporter, “I think about as much of Dewey as I did before, and that’s not much.” Democrats chalked “Lunatic Engineers for Truman” on train after train, and hounded the candidate with references to it until the end of Truman’s winning campaign.

When Republican Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan tried to privatize trash collection after his election in 1993, the city union that represented sanitation workers had them politely visit the homes of the people they served. Their reception was extremely warm, and soon city hall was besieged with calls to keep the system in the hands of the public. Riordan’s plan ended up in the trash bin.

In December 2004, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger faced a group of nurses protesting his decision to maintain large staffing ratios in hospitals. He blithely called them “special interests” and said, “I always kick their butt.” Soon he was facing a challenge from the 5-foot-tall and very effective head of the nurses’ union, Rose Ann DeMoro, who ultimately made him eat his words. The governor learned that conservative rhetoric against unions was no match for the public’s approval of police officers, trash collectors, nurses and others who keep the lights on and the doors open.

This month, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker rammed through a radical bill to gut collective bargaining for his state’s public employees. Just like Schwarzenegger, Walker underestimated the hornet’s nest his attack on public employees would create. Over the course of several weeks, tens of thousands of protesters crowded the state capitol. By the end, farmers were driving tractors in support of the unions. Despite Walker’s attempt to split the police from the other unions, most law enforcement sided with the protesters. As of this week, anti-Walker organizers had collected nearly half of the signatures needed to recall eight Republican members of the state senate. A signature drive to place a recall of the governor on the ballot will begin in January under a state law that guarantees no recalls for one year after taking office.

Labor may not be what it used to be, and Republicans keep thinking that unions will fold like a cheap suit when attacked. But while Democrats in government do indeed tend to cave in to Republican bullies, the unions are the party’s fighting core. Their fighting spirit, as seen in Wisconsin, has done more to revive the Democratic Party than the entire national party leadership since 2008.

It’s easy to underestimate unions. They are demonized by Republicans and often kept at arms’ length by Democrats. The national media pay little attention to them. A crowd of 80,000 people in Madison is likely to get less coverage than 25 Tea Partiers. It would take divine intervention for the Sunday talk shows to put a labor leader on the stage. (That would take time away from the thoughts of John McCain.)

But let go of the stereotypes. Union members are not just the men with blue-collar jobs that we imagine. Even in the early days, women were central to their development (see the story on the anniversary of the Triangle Factory Fire on Page 14); now they include men and women, blue-collar and white-collar workers, many with a college degree and from diverse backgrounds. A 2009 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that nearly half of today’s union members are women, and nearly half of union members have a college degree. One out of eight are immigrants. Latinos now make up more than 12 percent of the unionized work force, with African Americans at 13 percent. The labor movement is probably the only place in American politics where white men with blue-collar jobs are joining forces with blacks and Latinos and women, with white-collar workers and immigrants. That fact alone should worry governors like Walker trying to fight recalls.

In a number of states, Republicans now control both the governorship and the legislature. They are cutting taxes for the rich and for corporations (for the people who bankrolled their elections with the freedom offered by the Citizens United decision). They are doing this in order to create a fiscal crisis that will allow them to justify cutting programs for working people and crushing unions. Republican regimes are moving to make it harder for working-class and minority voters to participate, through voter ID laws. This is serious stuff.

Walker is the best known, but not even the worst. That honor belongs to Rick Snyder, the governor of Michigan, who is about to sign legislation that will give him close to dictatorial power over local governments. The law would strengthen the power of emergency managers, who would be able to step in and overrule elected local officials and even eliminate local governments and school districts. According to a March 9 article in the Detroit Free Press, “the law would include new triggers to allow the state to step in. For example, a city or school district that misses a payday or ends a year with a deficit of 5 percent or more” could find itself subject to state control.

So much for the “home rule” that cities and towns earned more than 100 years ago. Talk is starting of a Michigan recall campaign, and in Ohio there is movement for a statewide ballot measure to overturn union-busting legislation.

Unions are not perfect. There are unions whose influence disturbs me. (Don’t get me started on the state prison guards.) Sometimes unions fight hard for protections I don’t much like. Unions sometimes seem not to give a fig about public opinion, and sometimes that hurts them. But they are the only ones within the Democratic coalition willing to get their boots scuffed up when the game is on the line.

If unions themselves may not always be popular, the people they represent are, and we need them to protect us from the scarifying assault on democracy that is emanating from the 2010 mid-term elections. Somebody has to keep the Koch brothers and other corporate raiders from taking over our democracy.

If the Wisconsin battle has proved anything, it is that we are way better off with unions, because they are willing to stand up and fight for the simple right to maintain a middle-class standard of living for ordinary people.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at California State University, Fullerton.

Our Annual Purim Spoof Cover 2011: Charlie Sheen, Wisconsin, Wikileaks, Dior, Egypt


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Letters to the Editor: J Street, Wisconsin, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions

Traffic Going in Both Directions on J Street

I would like to add my congratulations, to the many he has already received, to David Suissa for again having written an excellent, incisive and rational article, “J Street Needs Another Lane” (March 4) to complement his “Israel Never Looked So Good,” which generated a significant response.

As for the article on J Street, their hypocritical members are reprehensible [people] who, under the guise of “social justice,” are bent on destroying Israel. They would at least be respected if they converted to Islam and/or Christianity because with self-loathing Jews like these, Israel doesn’t need any enemies.

For shame.

Fortuna Spiwak

Suissa’s “Hood” has a Zionist Main Street that is too narrow for 70 percent of American Jews. He is too quick to dismiss America’s fastest-growing new Israel advocacy group, J Street. With 170,000 members (including 600 rabbis) and 40 local chapters, we are a Zionist constituency that should not be ignored or denigrated as a “smugfest.”

Why does Suissa belittle my Zionist conviction that a peace treaty with Palestinians is “really, really, really, really important”? Does a genuine lover of Israel disrespect the horrible impact of constant warfare on Israelis? For Israel’s sake, I seek peace.

I went to the national J Street Conference in Washington looking for a way around the decades-old roadblocks jamming the path to Israeli-Palestinian peace. I was not disappointed.

Dennis Ross told our J Street audience that “everyone knows the basic outline for a peace settlement.” Five members of Knesset berated Israel’s motionless political leadership. They said the Israeli government is frozen by fear. It needs the confident encouragement of Diaspora Jews to open an avenue to peace.

I left the 2011 J Street Conference more committed than ever to a dramatic resolution of the old Israel/ Palestinian tension. Peace can be achieved!

Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein
Sherman Oaks

We were among the 2,500 attendees at the J Street Conference in Washington, D.C., and it was an educational, inspiring experience. With the political landscape in the Mideast undergoing a remarkable shift toward personal freedom, there was a universal call for action, both on the part of Israel and the U.S. From the committed democracy of Israel, where was any congratulations or support for this citizen action seeking personal freedom? There was no charge against Israel, no targeting — Israel was hardly mentioned if at all. The uprising was a true citizen revolt against decades of dictatorial rule. Can Israel continue to keep the Palestinian people virtually under lock and key when freedom is bursting out in neighboring countries? Can the Netanyahu/Lieberman path of rigid, unyielding control continue in this new, wakening time? Should Obama develop a balanced plan, gain international support and then bring this plan to Israel and perhaps Ramallah? Can he be a true leader in this time of crisis?

The crowd at the meeting, young and old, called for action. This is a time of great movement, filled with risks and opportunities, and it requires great leadership. Does the West have this leadership or will this opportunity quietly slip into history as Israel spirals into an ever more dangerous future?

Richard and Lois Gunther
via e-mail

David Suissa writes eloquently when he tells J Street to stop pressuring Israel to make peace with the Palestinians, and when he asks J Street to pressure Palestinians to return to the peace table. But he ignores J Street’s reasons for focusing their pressure on Israel.  Suissa seems to forget that Israel is the party breaking international law by expanding settlements in the West Bank that steal Palestinian land, and that the Palestine Papers demonstrate that the Palestinian leadership offered many concessions to the Israelis in recent years, all of which were rejected by Israel.

Suissa fears a Hamas takeover of the West Bank, yet he supports Israeli policies that make that more likely. Every time Israel rejects out of hand an offer from the Palestinian Authority, Israel is weakening the PA and creating a vacuum that Hamas is ready to step into. 

Israel should get ahead of the curve and quickly end the occupation and make peace with Palestine. That is the way to preserve a Jewish state.  

Jeff Warner
LA Jews for Peace
La Habra Heights

Examining the Jewish Position on Unions

The authors of “The Torah of Wisconsin” (March 4) make the case that the Judaic tradition is aligned with unions of Wisconsin. The writers describe the unions in Wisconsin using words such as “labor,” “workers” or “rights.” As if they like working in a coal mine subject to gas explosions. Many of these public employees, like teachers, are degreed professionals, not “laborers.” Laws that apply to every American “worker” regulate minimum wage, workplace safety and labor practices. It incomprehensible to this reader to extend special workplace circumstances to a caste of individuals, especially at the cost of votes, political favoritism and a corrupted system that moves money from government paycheck to union coffers to politicians’ political coffers.

The writers mention the Jewish delivery from slavery as a “lesson regarding the treatment of workers.” Please! The vast majority of taxpayers have fewer days off, pay more for their benefits, are paid less (in several circumstances), see their 401(k)s dwindling and may never see a Social Security check. All the while, their increasing government mandated taxes are used to subsidize this caste of individuals. So, who is the real slave?

Michael Rosenberg

California has been run by the Democratic Party for decades. All they way from city councils to the mayors to Sacramento. The state unions have run all of the education and city affairs for all of recent history, and they are 100 percent behind the Democratic Party. Not one significant California public union supports a single Republican candidate. It’s as blue as it can get. The Democrats have had it their way for decades and look where it has gotten us. California is in a shambles. The Torah teaches responsibility for one’s actions. The actions of a Democratically controlled California have gotten us to the brink of bankruptcy, and it’s enough already. Time to tighten the belt and act fiscally responsibly and work for the betterment of all Californians. Not just the ones that happen to be union Democrats.

Joel Bertet
Los Angeles

Just Say No to BDS

I read the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) response to Rob Eshman in The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles (“Just Say Yes,” Feb. 18), and I would like to thank them for taking a stand against Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).

Within the last 40 years, the African Americans in the USA have managed not only to extract racism out of our legal system, but also to turn racism into a social taboo. Tragically, many in the Jewish community, with the help of publications like The Jewish Journal, have managed to accomplish just the opposite. They have diluted the meaning of anti-Semitism by allowing, accepting and contributing to some forms of anti-Semitism, such as attacks on Israel and on Israel’s American supporters (both Christians and Jews).

If you read The Journal’s articles, the talkbacks and letters to the editor, you will quickly notice how this newspaper has added to the confusion and the split in our community on the issue of Israel. This paper has helped weaken our younger generation of Jews who are lacking the historical perspective many of my generation have with regard to what Israel represents, how we got to where we are and what’s at stake. This paper is one of those that have shamefully contributed to the fact that “some” anti-Semitism in America is no longer a taboo.

This is a free country, and every artist has the right of free speech, expression and participation in the BDS, but they have absolutely no right to be supported by any Jewish community funds. Eshman’s rebuke is totally misplaced and irrelevant. The San Francisco JCRC did the right thing, and I applaud them for that.

Harvey Zirler
La Canada

Clarifying Position of JLIC Program at UCLA

I applaud The Jewish Journal for covering the effort to raise funds to maintain the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) program at UCLA. However, the title of the article “Orthodox Students Fighting to Keep Presence at UCLA” (Feb. 25) implies that only “Orthodox” students are involved. The Kaplans positively impact the entire campus Jewish experience at UCLA as other JLIC families do on university campuses across the country. As a Conservative Jew and recent university graduate, I proudly support and contribute to JLIC and encourage Jews of all affiliations to do the same.

Stevie Green
via e-mail

Need headline

When I read the headline “Is Egypt the Next Iran?” (Feb. 18), I couldn’t help thinking that there should have been a companion story “Is Iran the Next Egypt?”

Masse Bloomfield
Canoga Park

Triangle Shirtwaist fire reminds of need for unions

Late on the afternoon of Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire erupted at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company on the top floors of a modern, fire-proof building at the corner of Manhattan’s Washington Place and Greene Street, near Washington Square Park.

In the bedlam precipitated by the flames and smoke, more than 200 panicked employees jammed the only open exit; a company policy aimed at eliminating employee theft locked a second exit door. They overwhelmed the one inadequate working elevator, and the single fire escape collapsed. Those trapped inside rushed to the window ledges and, with flames licking at their backs, leapt. They fell to their deaths on the pavement below within sight of thousands of witnesses.

When firefighters finally controlled the blaze, officials tallied the number of victims at 146. No one could be certain of the identity of the dead because many of the bodies were charred beyond recognition. Only last month did an amateur historian finally identify and name the last six unidentified victims. Among the dead, the vast majority, 127, were women, mostly Jewish immigrants from Russia. Many also were immigrants from southern Italy.

The ironies associated with the tragedy were almost too unbearable to ponder.

The Jewish immigrant women and girls came mostly from families who practiced Orthodox Judaism and for whom Saturday was the Sabbath, when they should not have been at work.

Had the company been unionized, as were many of its competitor shirtwaist manufacturers by March 1911, employees may have been long gone before the fire erupted. Yet from the moment that the shirtwaist makers had quit work collectively in the winter of 1909-10 to demand union recognition, the Jewish owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company refused to recognize their employees’ union, Local 25 of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.

The blaze erupted not in a stereotypical, unsanitary, cramped sweatshop but in a modern steel-frame building that was well lit and well ventilated.

Perhaps the ultimate irony is the manner in which the tragedy has been commonly remembered and even today is being memorialized on its 100th anniversary.

Far too many of the remembrances link the Triangle Fire to an era of social reform associated with the names Al Smith, Robert F. Wagner Sr., Frances Perkins and ultimately to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. It is a tale in which social reformers like Perkins improve workplaces, limit the hours of labor by law, provide legal protections for women and child workers, institute worker pensions, and transform toilers such as the Triangle workers from wage slaves into middle-class consumers.

Undoubtedly, that tale bears a large measure of truth.

Unfortunately, however, it obscures a far more important reality—one that was dearer to the fire’s victims, their families and their fellows at work in the city’s garment industry—that was expressed vividly by Rose Schneiderman, herself once a shirtwaist maker and now an organizer for the ILGWU.

At a memorial meeting convened by such respectable reformers as Perkins, Schneiderman lamented that “Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience that it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way that they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”

Few truer words were ever spoken. Laws to improve working conditions were meaningless unless enforced. Public agencies rarely had enough inspectors to ensure the implementation of statutes violated with impunity by unscrupulous employers.

It took unions to make regulations effective in the daily lives of workers.

The unions that emerged in the garment trades, the core of the Jewish American labor movement, not only insured that new laws were enforced; they provided additional layers of safety and security. The ILGWU bargained with employers to create a Joint Board of Sanitary Control to police conditions in the shops. The ILGWU and its counterpart in the men’s garment industry, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, pioneered in providing their members with pre-paid, first-class health care and modern commodious apartments.

In doing so, the unions saved thousands of lives that otherwise would been sacrificed to fetid living conditions, communicable diseases, most notably tuberculosis, and inadequate health care.

Today, fewer than 7 percent of private sector workers belong to unions. A well-financed and coordinated attack seeks to limit the rights of public employees. Wage theft is rife, and employers prey upon undocumented immigrant workers and insecure documented immigrants.

It is past time to recall the lesson Schneiderman taught—that workers must save themselves, and that the best way to do so is through organization.

(Melvyn Dubofsky is distinguished professor of history and sociology emeritus at the State University of New York at Binghamton and author of numerous books on U.S. social and labor history.)

From the Triangle Fire through Madison Wisconsin: What is to be done?

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that took place in New York City a century ago is now being memorialized in programs across the country. It took that fire on March 25, 1911, and the deaths of 146 innocent garment workers – mostly women, mostly Jewish, mostly immigrants – to bring about meaningful safety regulations, and to respect the call of workers struggling to secure the benefits of union membership.  Many of our grandparents and great-grandparents played a critical role in building a strong and vibrant labor movement with the hope that it would endure and remain a permanent feature of American life.  Through their actions and their struggle, our lives and the lives of most Americans were made better.  Today, those hard-fought gains are under threat in communities across the United States.

What has emerged in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and across America is an attack against working men and women in both the public and private sector. The targets are the public employees now, but their intention is to come after all unionized workers.

The federal government, using taxpayer money, bailed out the banks and saved Wall Street. Now, corporate leaders and the elected officials they support are saying thank you by demanding tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and budgets balanced on the backs of working people – including many in the Jewish community. It’s a perverse form of gratitude.

The budget deficits cited to rationalize the attacks on public service workers’ collective bargaining rights are nothing more than a diversion: the real aim is to debilitate the labor movement state by state, for political, not economic, ends, and in doing so, curtail fundamental rights for all working people. That is why all of us need to speak up, now.

Fortunately, the latest opinion polls show that a vast majority of Americans continue to support the legal right of working people to be represented by the union of their choice, and to engage incollective bargaining.  But as caring Jews, as thoughtful Americans, we must not become complacent – we must continue to speak out against the Governor of Wisconsin and others of his ilk trying to dismantle the unions founded by our forefathers and foremothers and erode the workplace protections they fought so hard to achieve.

Many Jewish texts, from the Torah through the Talmud, deal specifically with the treatment of workers. The Torah urges “justice, justice, shall you pursue.”  There is, then, a deeply moral, historical and theological basis for our efforts to close the widening gap between the rich and poor, and to prevent growing economic instability that will be detrimental for all Americans.  This demands that we strengthen, not weaken, private and public sector unions to ensure that current and aspiring middle class Americans attain a decent standard of living and greater economic security.

The history of the American Jewish community is one of upward mobility and expanding economic opportunity.  But upward mobility and shared prosperity cannot be achieved by lowering job standards and pitting workers against each other – which is what some would like to do.  The artificial divisions that are part of the attack against organized labor must be challenged – by unions and their community allies as well.  The Jewish Labor Committee is proud of our work to bring the Jewish community and the labor movement together in common cause – and we invite you to join us.  If not now, when?

Durable coalitions that include organized labor and the organized Jewish community need to support policies that will boost overall working conditions and lift up workers who are the least well-off.  We know from our own experience that the middle class was built not by making jobs worse but making jobs better: unions fought hard to raise standards across industries and occupations, and we were all better off for it.

Remembering what Jews once did and continue to do for working people and for a strong American economy should make us hopeful about our ability to safeguard a society that promotes justice, and ensures equality and fairness for all.

It took that terrible fire a century ago to shock many into finally accepting the need for reform, and to defend the interests of workers. Solidarity with garment workers, and among workers of diverse kinds, became a daily bond that fortified our own communities. We must remember this today as we remember those who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire 100 years ago, and now honor the courageous men and women of Wisconsin, and all working people whose basic rights are under attack.

Stuart Appelbaum is President of the Jewish Labor Committee and President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, UFCW.

The Torah of Wisconsin – the Bread and Roses edition

Rose Schneiderman was a Jewish immigrant from Poland who lived in New York City at the turn of the last century and campaigned for workers’ rights, better wages and secure safer working conditions. She served in FDR’s brain trust and was a co-founder of the ACLU. During the fight for women’s suffrage, Schneiderman famously wrote, “What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”

Warren Jacobson is the president of his local chapter of the Zionist Organization of America. He lives in Wisconsin, votes Republican and worked for 18 years as a public school teacher. He does not think that unions are perfect, but he supports the more than 100,000 people who withstood icy ten-degree temperatures last weekend to call Governor Scott Walker to account for his actions.

What do they have in common? 

They are both Jews who, in their time and place — stood by the right of workers to collectively bargain for their common good. Their struggles may be 100 years apart, but they are eerily the same – linked as much by a shared secular history as by the Jewish tradition, text and law that supports the fair treatment of workers as a foundation of a just society. Their “Torah” or “instruction” for us is a precious legacy we should not abandon.

One hundred years ago, an industrial inferno in a New York garment factory claimed the lives of 146 people, mostly young, Jewish immigrant women. The tragedy at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is often described as an “accident,” but the factory had no sprinklers and almost no usable emergency exits. The owners of Triangle, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, kept exit doors locked, ostensibly to prevent employees from taking unauthorized breaks and stealing goods.

The women of the Triangle Factory were not alone.  When their strike against the two largest companies in the industry, Triangle and Leiserson, were disrupted by strikebreakers and by police officers and company-paid thugs who beat picketers, a committee of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union endorsed more drastic action, a strike of all shirtwaist makers in New York. 

After union leaders urged caution, Clara Lemlich, a 23 year-old Yiddish-speaking, Jewish immigrant from Ukraine, rose to speak. “I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions,” she said. “I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.” The crowd roared its approval, and the chairman of the meeting, the editor of the Forward newspaper, asked the audience to take a Jewish and union oath in affirmation: “If I turn traitor to the vow I now pledge, may my hand wither from the arm I now raise!”

The strike that ensued – dubbed the Uprising of the 20,000 – lasted 14 weeks. Despite arrests and beatings, the women of the ILGWU stood firm. With the backing of other women activists including Schneiderman, the strikers eventually won concessions from most of the business owners. Triangle was among the holdouts. The company’s failure to treat its workers humanely and engage in collective bargaining had tragic consequences.

A year later, a fire erupted on the eighth floor of the Triangle factory and spread to the floors above.  The tallest ladder from Fire Company 20 reached only to the sixth floor. The firemen later found bodies piled up next to a locked door. Those who were not burnt alive inside the building perished after leaping to their deaths from factory windows. 

Rose Safran, a veteran of the strike, said later about Triangle, “Our bosses won and we went back as an open shop… If the union had won we would have been safe. Two of our demands were for adequate fire escapes and for open doors… But the bosses defeated us and we didn’t get the open doors or the better fire escapes. So our friends are dead.”

The fire, whose 100th anniversary falls March 25, was the impetus for major reforms.  Schneiderman, Lemlich and their colleagues spent their lives advocating and agitating for the rights of workers and women, practicing what we call a Torah of engagement, solidarity and hope. As a Jewish community, we can draw our strength, our inspiration and our instruction for just action from their memory and from our proud traditions that respect and honor human dignity.

Elissa Barrett is the Executive Director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.  Journalist Jeffrey Kaye is a member of the Sholem Community and of the Los Angeles Regional Council of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.  He is author of the book:  “Moving Millions:  How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration” (Wiley).

“A Flame That Keeps Burning: Marking the Centennial of the Triangle Factory Fire,” a program of drama, poetry, and music will take place on Sunday, March 13, 2011 at 10:30 am at the Westside Neighborhood School, 5401 Beethoven Street, Los Angeles, CA 90066.  The program is presented by the Sholem Community and co-sponsored by the Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle, the Progressive Jewish Alliance, Yiddishkayt L.A. and LALaborfest. More info.

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis will speak at the Annual Fundraising Gala of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, on Thursday, May 26, 2011, at Sinai Temple.
More info.

Wis. governor’s plan threatens workers and Jewish values

More than 100 Jews from all three Madison synagogues gathered Feb. 25 to celebrate Shabbat with services in the Wisconsin State Capitol. Four Madison rabbis led the services for the community members who had crammed into the North Gallery.

Below us, the Capitol Rotunda was teeming with energy—protesters from all over the state were waving signs of opposition to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget repair bill.

Singing Shabbat psalms and reciting prayers, we had found a Jewish expression for our deepest values—values of community, education and justice; values of respecting the elderly and caring for the poor, the sick, the mentally ill and the disabled; values of discussion, debate and compromise.

The governor’s legislation threatens these values.

His budget repair bill has nothing to do with solving an emergency budget crisis, nor does it have to do with curbing the excesses of labor unions. This is about political power: Destroy the unions and you have destroyed a key institution representing the interests of the middle and working class.

If this were only about balancing the budget, there would be no need to strip workers of their right to organize or to ram through the legislation without negotiation, compromise or even debate.

Jewish support for the labor movement often stems from religious texts mandating workers’ rights. As the Torah states, “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer.” Or it stems from pride in our involvement and leadership in the labor movement in the early 20th century.

While Jewish opposition to Walker’s attempts to destroy labor unions is certainly rooted in these religious and secular ideals, it also centers on fundamental questions at the heart of our Jewish values: What kind of society do we want to live in? What kind of world do we want to leave to our children? How can we stand idly by when proposed legislation will devastate the very fabric of our communities?

Last week all eight rabbis in Madison representing the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements of Judaism signed on to a letter distributed to colleagues throughout the country that strongly opposes Walker’s proposed legislation. We have enjoyed deep and broad support for this letter because there is a significant consensus that the governor’s bill will have dreadful effects on our state.

Walker and his supporters have tried to pit the public sector and their unions against the private sector, which is largely not unionized. Yet we know that with this legislation we all lose. We all lose because his legislation will drastically reduce the quality of our public schools, state universities and park system, as well as our nursing homes, child care centers and hospitals.

This is an affront to our Jewish values. Far from being a coddled class, public employees are our teachers, bus drivers, prison guards, firefighters and police officers—the very heart of our communities. They are streaming into our Capitol day after day from around the state because their livelihood is in jeopardy.

It is not just the public employees who are protesting. The more than 70,000 people who converged on the Capitol on Feb. 26 were quite diverse: young and old, rural and urban, wealthy and poor. It is a testament to how deeply they care about our future. Their passion and commitment demonstrate our human capacity to raise our voices when people’s health, security and well-being are threatened and to work diligently to create a better world.

As Rabbi Hillel once said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?”

Laurie Zimmerman is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Madison, Wis.

The Torah of Wisconsin

In the streets of Madison, we can hear the echoes of Torah. From Moses to Maimonides to modern day Rabbis across the country, Jews have a long and lively history of supporting the rights of working people. Rabbis Bonnie Margulis and Jonathan Biatch recently reported from Wisconsin that standing for worker’s rights is “absolutely” the Jewish thing to do. Now is a good moment to ask ourselves, why?

For the past 150 years, labor unions have formed the backbone of progressive movements for social change. In Egypt, the winds of change blew hardest when workers from Alexandria to Aswan joined the youth revolution. In America, unions are woven into the story of empowerment for countless generations of immigrant workers, Jews among them, and the struggle of American minorities—from the sanitation workers of Memphis in the 1960s to the janitors of Los Angeles today.

The issue in Wisconsin is no longer about budgeting or steep cuts in wages and benefits—the unions and Governor Scott Walker are in full agreement there. When Governor Walker began targeting the ability of public employees to bargain collectively for their common good, he targeted our country’s most fundamental labor right: the right to a voice on the job. Our Jewish tradition urges us to see this as a shofar call to action.

It is no coincidence that the first lessons we receive after being freed from slavery in Egypt are on the treatment of workers. “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger… You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets… else he will cry to God against you and you will incur guilt” (Deuteronomy, 24:14-15). The third century mishnah and tosefta instructs employers to meet or exceed local custom in terms of wages and benefits, and the Babylonian Talmud gives town residents the right to intervene between a local employer and a worker to insure that wages are fair. All this is codified by centuries of commentaries, Talmud scholars and jurists.

Contemporary Halakhic (Jewish legal) decisions continue this strong tradition. 

In 1938, Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Chai Uzziel, the Rishon le-Tziyon (Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel), wrote: “It is obvious that the Sages, of blessed memory, recognized the regulations of a craftsman’s guild or union of laborers or clerks in the general labor federation, or other federations of professionals.” Rabbi Uzziel explicates this further: “Reason also dictates that we should not leave the worker alone, isolated as an individual, so that he would have to hire himself out for minimal wages in order to satisfy his and his family’s hunger with bread and water in meager quantities and with a dark and dank apartment. In order to protect himself the law gave him the legal right to organize, and to create regulations for his fellows for the fair and equitable division of labor amongst them and the attaining of dignified treatment and appropriate payment for his work—so that he might support his family at the same standard of living as other residents of his city.”

And Rabbi Uzziel was not alone. In 1945, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, a leading Israeli Ashkanzi scholar and posek (authoritative adjudicator of questions related to Jewish law), recognized the right of workers to organize and to have their regulations and rules seen as binding. He also recognized, in certain conditions, their right to strike. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895–1986), a Lithuanian Orthodox rabbi, scholar and posek, concurred in a series of Responsa that extended Rabbi Waldenberg’s holding to include the right of workers to prevent scabs from doing their jobs and to include the rights of religious school teachers to bargain collectively, even though community funds and the religious obligation to teach Torah were at stake. In May 2008, a Responsa by Rabbi Jill Jacobs was passed by the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, calling on Jewish organizations and synagogues to allow collective bargaining by their employees.

In sum, Jewish tradition has been clear and consistent—the treatment of workers and their right to organize are among the basic underpinnings of a just society. From the synagogue to the state house, Jews must therefore call on those who govern to find the path toward economic justice regardless of how difficult that road is to travel. Our heritage, as the sweatshop workers and copper miners of yesterday, bears witness to it. Our tradition compels it.

Elissa Barrett is the Executive Director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.  Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, author of the forthcoming Justice in the City: Toward a Community of Obligation (Academic Studies Press), is a past President and current member of the PJA board of directors, and an Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature at American Jewish University.

Wisconsin is a Jewish issue

There are moments – this is one such – when I envy America’s Roman Catholic Church.  I felt that way back in 1983 when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a remarkable pastoral letter on war and peace, and again in 1986 with the USCCB letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy.  These are authoritative documents, bold statements of the normative beliefs of the Church.  And I felt the same twinge of envy earlier today, as I read the words of Bishop Stephen E. Blaire, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development in a February 23 letter to Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki of Milwaukee.  He wrote, “You and our brother bishops in Wisconsin are offering a timely reminder of what the Church teaches on the rights and duties of workers, including the right to form and belong to unions . . . . Catholic teaching and your statement remind us these are not just political conflicts or economic choices; they are moral choices with enormous human dimensions. The debates over worker representation and collective bargaining are not simply matters of ideology or power, but involve principles of justice . . . .”

It doesn’t work that way for Jews.  We are blessedly non-hierarchical, often indeed bordering on the anarchical.  And on the issue at hand, the effort by the governor of Wisconsin to neuter the public employees’ unions of his state (except for the police, the firefighters’ and several smaller public safety unions), we have explicitly taken a pass.  As JTA reports, “The Jewish federations of Madison and Milwaukee have decided not to take a position on the issue.  ’It’s really due to the diversity of our donor base,’ said Jill Hagler, executive director of the Madison federation. . . . The Jewish Community Relations Council of Milwaukee also is refraining from taking a position, and for the same reasons, according to director Elana Kahn-Oren.”  Which means that on the noisiest and perhaps even the most consequential domestic quarrel of the day, we are officially mute.

That’s not to say that Jews as individuals and some Jewish organizations and institutions are not engaged.  We have no data, but it is a safe bet that among Jews involved with the issue, in Wisconsin and around the country, there’s overwhelming opposition to Governor Walker’s proposed legislation.  Perhaps they react as viscerally as I did to a sign at the Tea Party counter-rally in Madison the other day, a sign reading “Unions Are Un-American.”

There’s ample and unfortunate precedent for Wisconsinites to determine who is American and who is “un-American.”  But even Joe McCarthy might have thought this sign absurd.  There’s a middle class in America (albeit badly wounded) principally because of labor unions and the post WWII GI Bill.  There’s a middle class because unions fought to ban child labor, to establish a 40-hour work week, to provide health insurance and pensions for working people.  There’s a middle class because in 1909, in a strike that would have major implications for trade unionism in general, 20,000 shirtwaist makers, mostly women between the ages of 16 and 25, the largest strike by women up to that time in American history, called a strike that transformed the International Ladies Garment Workers Union into a major force in the labor movement and led, a year later, to another New York strike, this time of 65,000 cloak and suit workers, demanding, among other things, a union shop.  A Boston lawyer named Louis D. Brandeis was invited to mediate the dispute, and the workers won, and so did the garment trade workers in Chicago just three weeks later, striking 50 different manufacturers and becoming soon after the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.  [Full disclosure: My late mother-in-law was a piece worker at Craigmore Clothes in Chicago; without the on-site Amalgamated clinic she’d have had no way of dealing with the frequent punctures she experienced as she worked with basting needles.]

The preposterous notion that it is the pension and health benefits of public employees rather than a brutal recession, looming cutbacks in federal aid and the persistent impact of corporate greed that have brought Wisconsin and other states to impossible deficits is contemptible.  The arithmetic doesn’t work – and, in any event, the unions Walker has targeted have already indicated their readiness to accept cutbacks in their benefits.  What they resist, and what the battle is about, is the governor’s effort to destroy collective bargaining.

All this is “a Jewish issue” because, hierarchy or not, Jewish texts and teachings on worker rights are strikingly and unambiguously progressive.  It is a Jewish issue because of people like Sam Gompers, David Dubinsky, Irving Bluestone, Sidney Hillman, Morris Hillquit, Morton Bahr, Ralph Hellstein, and Albert Shanker, to say nothing of Andy Stern and now Randi Weingarten and a host of others who played and still do central roles in America’s labor history.  It is a Jewish issue because when last spring the International Trade Union Confederation dealt with an effort to label Israel an apartheid state, it was the Jewish Labor Committee and the American labor movement, joined by their counterparts in Australia and Germany, who successfully derailed the measure.  (And the ITUC added a kind of exclamation point by elevating the head of Israel’s Histadrut to its executive committee.)  It is, finally, a Jewish issue because justice is everywhere and always a Jewish issue.

Jews joining union showdown in Wisconsin over gov’s proposal

A growing number of Jews in Wisconsin are joining the protests in Madison against a budget-cutting proposal by the governor to eliminate most collective-bargaining rights for public-sector employees.

“Judaism has long stood for the rights of the worker, beginning with the biblical injunction of Deuteronomy: ‘Do not take advantage of the hired worker who is poor and needy,’ ” said Rabbi Bonnie Margulis.

Margulis joined two other Madison rabbis on Tuesday at a news conference at the state capitol building organized by the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal.

This is the second week of protests against the bill, which prompted the 14 Democrats in the state Senate to flee the state on Feb. 16, two days after the bill was introduced. Under Wisconsin legislative procedure, their continued absence effectively blocks any vote on the matter in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

Rabbi Bruce Elder of Glencoe, Ill., was one of two clergy members to offer the Wisconsin Democrats sanctuary, via an initiative of Interfaith Worker Justice. He said he has not heard back from the legislators.

“We don’t know where they are, but we assume they are OK,” he wrote in an email. “Our offers of sanctuary remain open and standing.”

In a “fireside chat” Tuesday night, Walker, a Republican, defended his proposal, saying it has nothing to do with curtailing workers’ rights. “The legislation I’ve put forward is about one thing,” he said. “It’s about balancing our budget now and in the future.”

Some Wisconsin rabbis and Jewish rights groups disagree, saying the proposal is an attempt to break the unions, who have agreed to take an 8 percent pay cut but refuse to give up their bargaining power. Similar battles between unions and state government have spread to Ohio and Indiana.

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Madison’s Temple Beth El, who is Margulis’ husband, told JTA this is “absolutely” a Jewish issue.

“For years in America, the Jewish community has supported workers’ right to organize, to bargain collectively, and for other purposes,” he said. “These rights are now in danger in Wisconsin because of Gov. Walker’s proposal to eliminate collective-bargaining agreements with public sector employees.”

Arguments have focused on the effect Walker’s proposal will have on teachers, but it also would impact sanitation workers, bus drivers and other municipal and state workers, Biatch and Margulis said. Police, firefighters and other public safety employees are exempt.

Rabbi Renee Bauer, director of the Interfaith Coalition, says Madison’s Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal congregation, Shaarei Shamayim, is drafting a letter opposing the governor’s bill and hopes to get the city’s three other congregations to sign on.

The Jewish federations of Madison and Milwaukee have decided not to take a position on the issue.

“It’s really due to the diversity of our donor base,” said Jill Hagler, executive director of the Madison federation. “This is a very important issue, and we have a number of diverse opinions.”

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Milwaukee also is refraining from taking a position, and for the same reasons, according to director Elana Kahn-Oren.

She noted that the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body representing 14 national and 125 local federations and JCRCs, put out a resolution several years ago supporting the right to collective bargaining and that the American Jewish community “has deep roots in labor.”

But, Kahn-Oren pointed out, not all Wisconsin Jews oppose the governor’s bill. “There are Jews who support Walker and those who have joined the protests,” she said.

Hagler said she had not heard of any rabbis or Jewish organizations that have come out in support of the governor’s bill, called Senate Bill 11.

The president of the local chapter of the Zionist Organization of America, Warren Jacobson, said he voted for Walker but opposes the bill.

“I’m basically conservative and I vote Republican across the board, but the fact that he wants to get rid of collective bargaining was a big surprise to me,” Jacobson said.

Jacobson retired two years ago after 18 years as a public school teacher, and he says teachers need the protection of collective bargaining.

“I’ve tasted anti-Semitism and discrimination, and I want someone supporting me,” he told JTA. “I paid $800 a year to the union. They let me down on a number of occasions, but we still need them.”

Marty Kaplan: The Monsters Are Due on Maple Streets

The power has gone out in a typical American town.  Wait—it’s not just the electricity.  The phones don’t work, either.  Portable radios are dead.  Cars won’t start. 

But then lawn mowers and cars and lights inexplicably start and stop on their own. What’s going on?  A meteor?  Sunspots?  Or are there, as Tommy’s comic book suggests, aliens among us, preparing for a takeover? Suspicion poisons the air. Neighbor turns on neighbor. A scapegoat is blamed. A shot is fired.  Panic, madness, riot.

And while the humans behave monstrously, the real monsters watch from a nearby hilltop, working a little gizmo that messes with the power on Maple Street and marveling how easy it is to manipulate these earthlings into destroying themselves.

In what is arguably the best “Twilight Zone” episode ever, “” target=”_hplink”>declared their willingness to return to the table and negotiate a shared sacrifice. The monsters are on Wall Street, where state pension funds were sunk into toxic sub-prime mortgage-backed securities.  The monsters are on K Street, where lobbyists are fighting financial industry oversight. The monsters are the politicians who are using Wisconsin’s deficit as a pretext to ” target=”_hplink”>so be it” language of their leadership, you’d think that the federal deficit is caused by the very people who who’ve been suffering the most in this recession.

But the monsters aren’t low-income ” target=”_hplink”>health insurance to cover them; or ” target=”_hplink”>Pell Grants; or people who think their government’s job includes preventing their air and water from ” target=”_hplink”>billionaires who’ve benefited from a massive transfer of wealth from the middle to the top and whose political puppets protect them from paying their fair share of taxes.

They’re the corporations whose cash has convinced Congress to deregulate industry after industry, despite all evidence that it is the enforcement of rules – not the magic of the marketplace—that protects the public’s rights.

They’re the defense contractors and pork appropriators who’ve used the cover of “national security” to shield the Pentagon’s budget and its procurement process from the cuts and reforms that even Republicans like the Secretary of Defense are advocating.

They’re the front groups and propagandists, like FreedomWorks and Fox, who use class warfare and culture wars in order to turn Americans against their own economic interests.

They’re the Supreme Court justices whose Citizens United decision, overthrowing a century of settled law, has made our campaign finance system an open sewer, and whose indifference to ” target=”_hplink”>coming case promises to throw sick people back onto the tender mercies of insurers and to destroy our best hope to curb Medicare costs – further ballooning the deficit and providing cover for even more draconian cuts.

The game in Washington is to use the deficit as camouflage for destroying government’s capacity to promote the general welfare.  The game in Wisconsin and other states whose new Republican governors and legislative majorities are feeling their oats is to shelter the income of the wealthiest, and to balance the budget on the backs of the middle class. 

At the end of the episode, Rod Serling says this:  “The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices to be found only in the minds of men.  For the record: Prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own—for the children, and the children yet unborn.  And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the twilight zone.”

Sometimes it’s hard to watch the news and not think that things are surreal.  The other day, when what’s been happening in Madison reminded me of what happened on “Maple Street,” I suddenly realized the theme music that goes with it.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of ” target=”_hplink”>USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.  Reach him at

Gabe Carimi: Star in shul and on the football field [ROSEBOWL FEATURE]

Gabe Carimi already knows that Yom Kippur won’t fall on a Sunday for at least the next 20 years.

The star left tackle at the University of Wisconsin looked up the dates in anticipation of being a potential first-round pick in this spring’s NFL draft. But first, Carimi will end his college career by leading the Badgers against the Texas Christian University’s Horned Frogs in the 97th Rose Bowl.

Carimi, co-captain of the Big Ten championship team, was recently named the conference Lineman of the Year and awarded the Outland Trophy, a national honor given to the best interior lineman. The civil and environmental engineering major has also been named Academic All-Big Ten four years in a row.

For Carimi, at 6 feet, 7 inches and 327 pounds, playing football and practicing Judaism both come naturally.

“It’s always just who I’ve been,” he told JTA.

Speaking by phone before an intensive series of Rose Bowl practices, Carimi recalled how his childhood baseball coach had sized him up and suggested giving football a try.

Of course, Carimi said, his mom always worried about him, but there wasn’t much danger of serious injury in peewee football. And even though sports practices dominated his schedule, he always reserved time to attend Temple Beth El, a Reform synagogue in Madison.

“He grew up at temple,” said Larry Kohn, the congregation’s education director.

Kohn chuckled at the memory of blessing Carimi during his bar mitzvah service, which he led in the rabbi’s absence. The teenager was already so tall, Kohn said, that he had to put his hands on Carimi’s shoulders instead of his head – even with the future football star bending down.

After becoming a bar mitzvah, Carimi continued his religious studies, celebrating his Confirmation and working as an assistant to a fifth-grade Sunday school teacher. For Chanukah one year, he asked his parents for a shofar and joined the men who share the honor of blowing the ram’s horn on the High Holidays.

While football has become more time consuming lately, Carimi still joins his parents and older sister for Friday night services whenever he can.

“Our lives have been busy and Friday evening was the time to stop, take a deep breath, inhale, exhale, just kind of get back in touch with what’s important,” his dad, Sanford Carimi, said.

“It always felt like home there,” Gabe Carimi said. Plus, he added, after nine hours a day at Camp Randall Stadium during football season, there wasn’t time to get involved with the campus Hillel.

To Kohn, the fact that Carimi continues to prioritize Shabbat and take on a leadership role at his synagogue, on top of commitments to football and academics, speaks volumes about his “spiritual strength and devotion.”

“A lot of kids, when they hit college, sort of take a break and return after they have kids,” Kohn said. “He’s a model of a long-term commitment to a task and to a value.”

Carimi has also made a point of maintaining some observance of the High Holidays, even when football interferes. When Yom Kippur fell on a Saturday during his freshman year, he fasted until an hour before the night game.

This past September, the holiday coincided with an afternoon face-off against Arizona State University. Carimi wrestled with whether he should play at all, even going to his rabbi for advice.

“I’ve always fasted, even when I was young,” he explained. “It’s a moment of clarity to kind of take the focus off the whole world and everything you have to do — just focus on trying to make yourself a better person.”

Ultimately, he came up with his own compromise: Instead of fasting from sundown to sundown, he started the fast early enough to give himself a few hours to recover before the game.
“Religion is a part of me and I don’t want to just say I’m Jewish,” Carimi said. “I actually do make sacrifices that I know are hard choices.”

As long as coaches respect those decisions, Carimi said, he has no problem respecting the team’s longstanding religious traditions. The Badgers, for example, have a Catholic priest lead prayers before every game. So as not to seem “socially different,” Carimi said, he opts to sit together with the group and listen quietly.

Outside of football and Judaism, Carimi has developed a passion for construction through his engineering studies, his woodworking hobby and two internships. This spring, he’ll work with an adviser to complete a final capstone design project.

As much as he likes engineering, Carimi said, he’s happy to put it aside for a pro football career. After the Rose Bowl, he’ll get two weeks off before returning to the field to train for the Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine.

More important than any football achievement, Sanford Carimi said, his son has proven to be a smart thinker with strong character and self-esteem. Even when he thinks about a huge honor like the Outland Trophy, he said, “that would mean nothing to me if he wasn’t a good kid.”

As Feingold exits, Senate loses a principled liberal

The speech that Russ Feingold gave to end his career in the U.S. Senate was much like his career itself: by turns crystal clear, obscure, ornery, defiant and gracious—and quoting a fellow Great Plains Jew to boot.

“But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free, I’ve got nothing but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me,” the three-term U.S. senator from Wisconsin said Nov. 2, quoting Bob Dylan while conceding to Republican Ron Johnson, a Tea Party-backed plastics billionaire who beat him by a 52-47 percent split at the polls.

Then, “It’s on to the next fight. It’s on to the next battle. It’s on to 2012!”

Feingold’s spokesmen later denied that the senator was hinting at a Democratic presidential bid exploration like the one he had pursued in 2006-07. What he did mean they wouldn’t say.

It was typical of the fiercely independent streak that put Feingold into office and may well have pushed him out.

Ira Forman, the former director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said Feingold’s refusal to accept outside campaign money may have helped elect him in the past but likely was his downfall in this election.

“He wouldn’t accept DSCC ads,” Forman said, referring to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, typical of the bodies that run negative ads against opponents. “He often ran against people who were the beneficiary of that kind of advertising. He hoped people would stand up for his integrity, as they had in the past.”

Forman’s voice tinged with regret.

“He’s an independent voice, a loss to Democrats and the Jewish community,” he said of Feingold.

In fact, Feingold’s Jewish identity, while strong, rarely manifested itself in leadership roles on Israel, Holocaust commemoration or the other areas that many Jewish lawmakers have made their own.

That was an approach rooted in a childhood in Janesville, Wis., a Plains town near the Illinois border. Feingold, 57, has described his upbringing as blessedly free of anti-Semitism.

“I was honored because I was Jewish,” Feingold said, describing teachers and other grown-ups to Sanford Horwitt, who wrote a political biography, “Feingold: A New Democratic Party.” “It was an amazing way to be treated.”

In 2003, asked by the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle whether Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) stood a chance in his presidential bid, Feingold’s answer was why not?

“As a Jewish candidate from a state with a small Jewish population, I don’t feel I faced any issues as a Jew,” Feingold said. “In fact, it may sound naive, but I think some voters regarded my being Jewish as interesting. I’ve only had a good experience.”

The Feingold family was socially involved, erudite and reserved—characteristics that continue to define Russ Feingold. His staff is fiercely loyal to him, although he keeps them at a distance.

Feingold is discomfited by forthright fans. The Dylan song he chose to quote, “Mississippi,” speaks to the senator’s teasing intellect: It is not from Dylan’s heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, but from his 2001 album, “Love and Theft.”

Feingold’s lawyer father, Leon, was the first Jewish president of the local Rotary Club who mingled with farmer clients at 4-H events. (Leon’s father, Max, a refugee from Russia, established the family to the town and immigrated to Israel in 1950.)

Feingold has said that his Jewish legacy is manifest in his political career.

“I understood my religion as the pursuit of justice,” he told Horwitt.

That’s pretty much the extent of his public leadership on Jewish issues, although he routinely joins initiatives launched by other Jewish Congress members, recently expressing concerns to the Turkish government over its distancing from Israel and in 2008 joining a raft of Jewish senators pushing back against rumors that President Obama is a Muslim. He attends services on the High Holidays, and his sister, Dena, is a rabbi in Kenosha, south of Milwaukee.

Still, a national Jewish community that has a soft spot for independent liberals embraced Feingold. He drew Jewish support in his successful 1992 senatorial bid to oust the Republican incumbent, Bob Kasten, even though Kasten had a strong pro-Israel record.

“He is somebody who’s remarkably dedicated to civil liberties and to the Constitution, and has the courage of his convictions,” said Sammie Moshenberg, the Washington director of the National Council for Jewish Women. “He took a lot of gutsy stands,” she said, citing Feingold’s lone dissent in 2001 when the Senate approved the U.S. Patriot Act.

That vote drew derision at a time of heightened concerns over terrorism, but eventually made him a hero of the Democratic base. It is a legacy still in dispute: A televised encounter last week between two liberals, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald and MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell over whether Feingold should have tacked further right to get re-elected—O’Donnell’s position—has gone viral in the blogosphere.

Feingold was among a handful of lawmakers in the recent election who drew the endorsement of both J Street, the “pro-peace, pro-Israel” group, and donors associated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Officials in both groups lamented his departure.

Feingold’s independence was his biggest draw. With. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), he crafted a law severely limiting corporate donations to campaigns. Unlike McCain, who won re-election last week, Feingold abided by the rules of his law even after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it.

“This was a public servant who visibly, proudly and courageously stood on principle,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, which backs election reform. “His effort to make America’s election system more fair and transparent made major contributions to good government.”

It was an independence borne of his upbringing and the turbulent 1960s in which he came of age. Feingold’s home, harmonious in its support of liberal causes until the ‘60s, was riven by a split between Feingold’s two father figures: His father supported the war in Vietnam, and his brother David, older by five years, opposed it.

Feingold emerged from the era determined to do what best hewed to his philosophical principles, and in the process he occasionally frustrated his party. In 1998 he famously was the only Democrat to vote to consider the U.S. House of Representatives’ impeachment of President Clinton—not because he believed Clinton was guilty, but because he believed in the constitutional process of impeachment.

Three years later he voted to confirm former Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) as attorney general, even though they were polar opposites on critical civil liberties questions. Feingold’s reason: his abiding belief that a president, in this case George W. Bush, had the right to pick his Cabinet. He later also supported Bush’s nominee for Supreme Court chief justice, John Roberts.

His explanation of his Ashcroft vote in 2001, to skeptical Feingoldians at The Progressive, a liberal journal, presaged the vituperative climate that brought about his downfall.

“I believe we have to hold the line and not use ideology alone in making decisions about Cabinet appointments,” Feingold said. “I fear if we keep going, more and more areas of our government are going to fall into the Great Divide and be engulfed in a culture war.”

American ideas boost bid to get Israelis to work

One advocacy group’s look at the problem
Click the BIG ARROW to play

Eti Sharabi walked through the glass doors and marveled at the shining hardwood floors and the walls splashed with green and orange, making this space feel more like a sleek advertising or architectural firm than an office to help the unemployed.

She found herself in the headquarters of STRIVE, after not working outside the home since her first child was born 15 years ago.

“I lost faith in myself and thought I would never find it again,” said Sharabi, 38, now a mother of four. “Here they have given me so much strength.”

Sharabi is part of the expanding Israeli underclass — a populace that includes the unemployed, the underemployed and the destitute. Many are casualties of what some consider draconian economic policies.

STRIVE, an intensive work-readiness program, is modeled after an initiative of the same name that began more than 20 years ago in New York’s Harlem in an effort to help women on welfare overcome their severe difficulties in finding and keeping meaningful jobs.

The program’s core message: Participants are important as individuals and therefore are worthy not just of make-work employment but of fulfilling careers.

That message of personal empowerment and tough love is underscored, its organizers explain, by the professional and pleasant look and feel of the STRIVE offices, as well as the intensive personal guidance that the organization provides its clients for more than two years after they enroll.

Participants are counseled in everything from how to pay off personal debts and find creative childcare solutions, to discovering and pursuing an ambitious career path that suits their interests and abilities.

STRIVE is one of at least two programs operating in Israel that are patterned after American-originated efforts to boost employment among the economically struggling and longtime unemployed; it is funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Israeli government.

Another such American transplant is called Mehalev, Hebrew for “from the heart,” based on the state of Wisconsin’s welfare-to-work plan that was unveiled in the mid-1990s after the U.S. Congress revamped welfare regulations.

One STRIVE participant is Tsivka Ben-Porat, 36, who spent a decade working in hotel kitchens as a cook — he had been unemployed for several months before finding STRIVE. With the help of its counselors and coaches, Ben-Porat is now working at a media company editing video, a steppingstone in his new chosen career: communications.

The program, he said, “is like being given a key to life, professionally and personally.”

Another STRIVE participant is Hanan Jaffaly, 32, an Arab Israeli single mother of two who had been in and out of what she described as dead-end customer service jobs for years. She supports her children on her own, with no assistance from her family.

Through STRIVE, Jaffaly is hoping to realize her goal of becoming a social worker and finally creating a stable, middle-class life for her family.

Mehalev was designed as a two-year pilot program in four Israeli cities. Launched in 2005, it was aimed initially at getting at least half of the country’s 150,000 welfare recipients off the public rolls and back to work. Participants are required to report to employment placement centers for 30 hours a week or lose their welfare income, which averages about $380 per month for an individual.

Safi Sasson, 40, now has the first job he’s ever held, thanks to the program. He had spent the majority of his adult life involved in petty crime and spent a total of eight years in prison, off and on, for offenses that included selling drugs and theft.

Sasson never imagined he could be a salaried worker, but for the past three months he has held down a job as a construction worker. He’s doing so well, his boss is planning on giving him a raise.

“I was apprehensive about working; I had never done it before,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot, most of all that I am capable of working. In the past I thought no one would ever hire me because of my criminal past.

“I wake up in the morning and I have somewhere to go. I’m feeling great, and it’s all because of the work.”

Is Mehalev Working?

The program, however, has met with mixed results. It has been widely denounced in the Israeli media and by social welfare advocates, who maintain that Mehalev has backfired. Rather than increase employment, detractors charge, the program has swelled the ranks of Israelis who receive neither paychecks nor public assistance.

A recent report by the National Insurance Institute of Israel found that the program saved Israel $1.43 million in welfare payments since it began, but that relatively few of its participants had found work, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported.

The savings in welfare payments apparently stemmed from people who had dropped out of the program and had their payments cut off.

More than 80 of the Knesset’s 120 members signed on to proposed legislation recently that called for a major overhaul of the program. The bill calls for, among other things, canceling the stipulation that all unemployed people — such as single mothers or those with part-time work — participate full time in the program or lose their welfare benefits.

The bill also would provide alternative arrangements for the disabled, those nearing retirement age, people who speak little or no Hebrew, and others who activists say are hurt by the program in its present form.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert approved the establishment of a government committee that will work to make major changes in the program to address some of these same issues.

According to Dorit Novack, until recently the administrator of Mehalev, in the program’s first year 11,000 job placements were found for participants. About double that number initially reported to the centers.

Not all the participants stayed in those jobs, however. The figure of 11,000 job placements includes those who have been placed in several jobs successively, Novack noted. But those figures, she said, do constitute progress.

“I am not saying the project has not made mistakes,” Novack said. “But the main point of this program is trying to help people change their future. If they are now working a minimum-wage job, that is double what they were making on welfare. I would prefer to see every person work as long as they are able physically.”

One of the main differences between the Wisconsin Works program in the United States and the Israeli version is the demographic profile of the participants. In the United States, the focus is predominately on young black single mothers. But in Israel, the clients are men and women, often older than 40, many of them immigrants or Arabs. Some have physical or mental disabilities or limited Hebrew-language skills.

All told, many participants were funneled into the program by the National Insurance Institute without an adequate assessment of “who might be a good fit,” according to Sari Revkin, executive director of Yedid, a Jerusalem-based social welfare organization.

“The idea [is] not to get people to change their motivation and skills,” Revkin said. “It’s to get them into a job quickly. With the population of new immigrants and Arabs this is very, very problematic.”

One of the four program centers in Israel is located in Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel, where some participants are women older than 50 who have never held jobs and have rarely traveled beyond their home villages. Now they are expected to find employment that may carry cultural baggage, in the form of their husbands’ or families’ disapproval over them working at outside jobs, critics say.

Meanwhile, many workplaces in Arab locales pay below minimum wage. And those Arabs who seek work in predominately Jewish areas, such as west Jerusalem, sometimes encounter discrimination and are refused employment.

However, Roy Newey, group board director for A4E, the British company running the pilot Mehalev program in Jerusalem, said he has seen some success in placing Arab women in jobs. He cites 15 women who found work on a mushroom farm near Jerusalem for about $830 a month, the Israeli minimum wage.

“They have self-esteem, finances, purpose in their lives,” Newey said. “It’s a real success story.”

Of the 8,000 participants who have come through the Jerusalem Mehalev, 3,000 have found and kept jobs since they joined the program in the past year and a half.

Role Playing for Success

At the STRIVE office in Tel Aviv — others are planned for Haifa and Jerusalem — a class in how to undergo a group interview is taking place.

In keeping with the STRIVE emphasis on nurturing long-term careers rather than landing stopgap jobs, participants are urged to dress for success. As a result, the Tel Aviv role players are wearing proper business attire — dark pants, skirts and button-down shirts.

In preparation for the group interview, a common hiring exercise used by Israeli firms, half the class is given a problem to solve collectively. The other half observes and provides feedback on how their classmates performed. For example, they evaluate who displayed leadership qualities, who was a good team player, who knew how to set priorities and who failed to participate sufficiently.

“The enthusiasm is catching and they start believing in themselves, and we see people with very limited desires jump to much wider horizons,” said Amir Natan, 33, a former high-tech executive who directs STRIVE in Israel.

Nearly 90 percent of STRIVE participants have found jobs.

One is Sharabi, who said she plans to start work as an office clerk, with hopes of eventually becoming an accountant.

“My oldest son said he has such fun watching me do homework and seeing me interested in something,” she said.

Sharabi then politely excuses herself from talking about the program to continue participating in it. The assignment: A role-playing workshop aimed at familiarizing clients with the ins and outs of office jobs.

There is still a lot to learn, she says with a smile.

STRIVE Israel:
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Israel poverty videos test