Ethics Plan Would Raise Sanctity of Business


An observant Jew was once brought before the judge on counts of tax fraud. Seeing the kippah-wearing Jew before him, the judge innocently asked, “Mr. Schwartz, you are clearly a God-fearing man. How do you explain your immoral behavior?”

Not missing a beat, Mr. Schwartz pointed his finger in the air and defiantly declared, “Your honor, religion is one thing, but business is business!”

Alas, we’ve witnessed several “Mr. Schwartzes” over the last few years, and each new headline evinces new winces of pain from our community. Rabbis have been beside themselves; for years, we’ve preached about the need to carry one’s Torah observance into the business place. Shockingly (as if), not all our parishioners were listening.

What’s more, an environment in certain industries seems to have developed where illegal business activity has not only been condoned but even considered the norm. The Jewish work ethic — what up until recently was the proud hallmark of pristine honesty and integrity — became tarnished.

L.A.’s Jewish community is the second largest in the country. We have much reason to be proud; we have established every imaginable organization or endeavor to dole out kindness and charity to those less privileged. Jews comprise a huge demographic of the righteous of our city.

At the same time, it’s been observed that life is like trying to make a bed using a fitted sheet that’s just a bit too small for the mattress. You pull one end of the sheet over one mattress corner, and the other end of the sheet pops off the opposite corner.

We all tend to focus on what we consider the important things in our lives at the expense of others. For some Jews, a focus on social action comes at the cost of Jewish literacy and ritual. For other Jews, a focus on ritual and Torah study comes at the cost of translating all that knowledge into action in the workplace.

Yet, the Talmud (T.B. Shabbat 31a) emphatically states that the first question a person will be asked when he or she ascends to heaven will not be, “Did you eat kosher food?” but rather, “Were you faithful in business?”

A group of rabbis and lay leaders, seeing this wound on an otherwise exemplary community continue to fester, felt that it was no longer enough to talk the talk. In order to really bolster awareness and education within the community, we needed to do something demonstrative that would raise awareness not only when in shul but also while shopping and doing business.

The Peulat Sachir: Ethical Labor Initiative is nothing new. Several years ago, a group of Modern Orthodox Jews in Israel founded an organization called, Bema’aglei Tzedek (On Paths of Justice), with the mission of addressing the moral and socioeconomic challenges facing Israeli society (you can learn more at their Web site, http://www.mtzedek.org.il/). One of their main projects is Tav Chevrati, which recognizes those businesses in Israel that provide minimum wage and other basic benefits to their employees. After launching an impressive marketing campaign, the Tav now boasts over 350 businesses that have the Tav seal hanging in their windows.

Using the Tav Chevrati model — with small modifications for the American business arena — our group realized that were we to attempt to redress all business ills we would be biting off more than anyone would be willing to chew. Under the direction of a team of attorneys, we instead chose to focus on the one area of business that has the most significant human impact, the area of labor law.

Peulat Sachir offers a covenant agreement to any business owner who complies with the six basic areas of labor law as required by the state of California: (1) minimum wage, (2) payment of overtime wages, (3) provision of meal and rest breaks, (4) leave policy, (5) workers’ compensation insurance and (6) discrimination/harassment policies.

Additionally, Peulat Sachir will host regular seminars on ethical business practices, which will be open to the general public.

Of course, one could argue: What’s the point of an attestation that someone is just obeying the law? In today’s world of Bernard Madoff rip-offs, kosher production scandals, subprime mortgage meltdowns and corporate greed, plenty. The simple public affirmation that I as a business owner comply with dina d’malchuta (the law of the land) is an important step toward the reformation of an unhealthy business culture.

One might also argue: Why focus so narrowly on this one area of business ethics? What about tax law? Immigration law? Clearly, there are many legal areas within the complex world of business that could and should be addressed.

For one thing, we’ve got to start somewhere. But it’s more than that; we believe that raising awareness about one area of ethics will positively spill over to others.

The employer who respects the law by meticulously paying overtime is more likely to report accurately on his tax return; someone who proudly procures workers’ compensation insurance for his minimum-wage employees is more likely to care about the needs of other underprivileged members of society.

The Peulat Sachir mission statement is thus twofold: To engender a new culture for Jewish businesses — one of commitment to the highest ethical and moral standards in all aspects of business — and to raise awareness of what we in the religious community expect from our vendors and, ultimately, from ourselves.

Those who appreciate what Peulat Sachir is trying to do will want to preferentially patronize those establishments that have signed a covenant. Those who don’t, won’t.

Peulat Sachir in no way penalizes or blacklists businesses that can’t or won’t sign on to the concept. Ultimately, it’s up to the public to decide the success of the Peulat Sachir initiative.

Who knows? Maybe Peulat Sachir will become a model for other communities. And just maybe, by elevating the sanctity of our businesses, we and our assets will all be blessed in the process.

If you are a local business owner and would like to receive more information, contact Peulat Sachir at info@peulatsachir.net.

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh Hebrew Academy, director of community and synagogue services for the Orthodox Union West Coast Region and a community mohel.

Mayor: Building inspectors need better training, sensitivity to block another Yom Kippur showdown


One year after an emotional incident in which city building inspectors sought to halt Kol Nidrei services for Orthodox worshippers at a Hancock Park service, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has followed up with a report with recommendations designed to increase sensitivity and prevent future problems.

The confrontation at the Yavneh Hebrew Academy in the Hancock Park area outraged the Orthodox community and its political supporters.

Triggering the incident was a series of anonymous phone calls from a neighbor of Yavneh, alerting the city Department of Building and Safety (DBS) to a probable violation, on Yom Kippur, of restriction governing the hours that Yavneh could use the facilities.

At 8 p.m., while Rabbi Daniel Korobkin was conducting Kol Nidrei services for some 200 worshippers, two inspectors walked into the lobby and told startled congregants that they had to vacate the premises immediately.

When told that worshippers would leave only if carried out by force, the inspectors left and the services continued.

The roots of the incident lay in a contentious nine-year feud between some residents of the upscale Hancock Park neighborhood and an influx of strict Orthodox families.

Villaraigosa, together with city councilmen, felt the heat from both sides and the mayor asked the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom “to independently review, pro bono, the events that occurred on Sept. 21, 2007…and to make recommendations.”

In a letter yesterday (Sept. 23) to DBS general manager Andrew A. Adelman, obtained exclusively by The Journal, Villaraigosa cited 12 findings and recommendations by the law firm and asked for a response by Nov. 7.

In general, the report found that DBS had not singled out the Orthodox community as such, but called for an improved inspection process within DBS, and better communications with the city planning department and with institutions, such as Yavneh, operating with certain restrictions under a conditional use permit.

Specifically, the report recommended continued “awareness seminars” for inspectors at the Museum of Tolerance, supplemented by a “cultural diversity” program, in addition to the following points.

Training to avoid conflicts while conducting building inspections.

Review of the policy under which DBS accepts anonymous complaints.

Avoid interrupting cultural or religious events.

Institutions operating under conditional use permits to appoint community liaisons, who would be notified of complaints before city officials take action.

Korobkin, the Yavneh spiritual leader, said he was very pleased with the mayor’s recommendations and that the fault for last year’s incident lay mainly in the way DBS was structured, as well as a certain lack ofsensitivity.

There is no chance that last year’s incident will be repeated, he said. For one, Kol Nidrei falls on a weekday this year, which allows for extended operating hours.

Korobkin also asserted that relations between Yavneh and its neighbors had improved over the last 12 months and that complaints came mainly from a hard core of seven to eight residents.

But future relations between Yavneh and the Hancock Park Homeowners Association, which includes a fair number of Jewish families, will bear watching.

No spokesperson for the homeowners was immediately available, but in the past they have persistently accused Yavneh of violating the terms of its conditional use permit and have initiated a number of court actions.

Although Yavneh is not located within his district, City Councilman Jack Weiss has been a vocal champion of the religious school.

He said that in the dispute, “justice is on the side of Yavneh – it’s not even close.”



View Larger Map

No Guests Allowed


Three little words.

That’s what makes the difference between a religious school and a synagogue, as recently defined by the Los Angeles Central Area Planning Commission.

The five-member Planning Commission, responsible for zoning decisions in Hollywood, Hancock Park and other neighborhoods, made its decision Aug. 28 in a hearing regarding Yavneh Hebrew Academy.

In April, Yavneh had submitted an application for a number of changes to the K-8 school’s zoning conditions, including adding a ninth grade for girls and allowing prayer services Saturday mornings. In June, after consulting with nearby residents, traffic consultants and architects, Associate Zoning Administrator Dan Green approved all but one of Yavneh’s proposed changes. The request “to authorize Saturday prayer for students, parents, relatives and other guests” was denied.

“I have no objection to immediate families…[but] ‘and other guests’ means open to the general public,” Green told the Planning Commission. “The school requested changes not necessary for the educational instruction, making it more like a synagogue.”

Allowing the public to worship at the school, he said, would require a separate application, though with a religious institution like Yavneh, “it’s probably a fair assertion that there’s some gray area here,” he said.

Religious institutions often run into problems when they seek to offer prayer services to the public. In Yavneh’s own Hancock Park neighborhood, the tiny Congregation Etz Chaim, a shteibel, has fought for years for the right to offer services in a single-family home purchased for that purpose.

But the solution for Yavneh has been easier. Since the June denial of the request for Saturday services, Yavneh eliminated the three words, “and other guests,” from its application for the appeal. Proponents of the school’s request argued that, as a religious Jewish school, prayer is a regular part of the curriculum, and prayer on Saturday is an extension of the curriculum, rather than the legally different “additional use.”

“It is ironic that we begin our day each weekday with prayer, but on Saturday, the Sabbath … we are not allowed to hold prayer,” Rabbi Moshe Dear, headmaster at Yavneh said.

Neighbors’ concerns focused largely on additional noise and traffic that might be caused by services. These issues were adequately addressed by the school, since no one attending a service at Yavneh would drive on Shabbat.

Hancock Park resident Ed Kazir, speaking in opposition to the request, told the Planning Commission that with “seemingly innocuous words, Yavneh has sought to convert the school into a school and synagogue.”

But James Wolf, president of the Hancock Park Homeowners’ Association, later emphasized, “This is a land use issue, not a neighbors issue.” The Homeowners’ Association supported the school’s request for religious services on Saturdays, once the “other guests” phrase was removed from the request.

Following the hearing of neighbor’s concerns, Planning Commission vice president George Luk made a motion that Yavneh’s revised application be accepted. The motion passed.

B.J. Kirwan, a lawyer from the firm of Latham & Watkins, representing the Yavneh, succinctly explained the situation: “Yavneh’s original request was to include invited guests. The neighborhood thought that sounded like opening a synagogue. So Yavneh scaled back its request to only Saturday morning services for family. As a school, it is important to meet the neighborhood at least halfway.”