December 10, 2019

The Striking Janitors — A Jewish Response

Those of you who marched in the ’60s for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam know what exhilaration there is in walking with thousands of people for a just cause. It is transformative.

I have always felt a certain kinship with those who march for dignity and justice at great risk to their livelihood. So it is once again that I have marched each day with the striking janitors who are fighting for a mere $1-an-hour raise. They make a meager salary cleaning our commodes and emptying our trash in Los Angeles high-rises. The mostly Latino immigrant janitors face the same challenges as do coal miners in Appalachia or sweatshop workers here and in New York and other workers who are struggling to raise families on jobs that don’t pay a living wage.

We in the Jewish community ought to be in the vanguard of this movement. It is we who turned this country around by standing up to management on the Lower East Side by demanding fair wages and better working conditions in the sweatshops of New York. It is we who created unions to protect our workers and give them rights and protections. Why are we not marching in masses? Are we too comfortable? Are we rabbis afraid of alienating our congregants who own some of the very buildings that are being picketed?

It is a shame to pay these workers such low salaries. They work hard to make our lives easier and can stay off welfare by making a little more income. This is not about welfare. It is about a fair share.

A growing number of clergypeople are members of an organization called Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE). In our leadership roles we are committed, as CLUE is, to the preparation of a “Declaration of Conscience” regarding economic development policy in the city of Los Angeles. CLUE is seeking the endorsement of a broad spectrum of religious and community leaders of the declaration.

As we work toward this declaration during the next few months, we will assume that a truly moral and human economic development policy for all the people will include measures that 1) benefit first the communities of the city most in need; 2) create quality jobs that pay a truly livable wage ($11 an hour or more) with health benefits and support the rights of workers to organize; and 3) require businesses to be fully accountable to the community as partners in the moral upbuilding of the fabric of our common life.

In this regard, we applaud those businesses that currently recognize the rightness of paying living wages and health benefits to their employees and that acknowledge the right of their employees to organize. Such businesses also recognize that the expanding Los Angeles economy has been extremely favorable to them in recent years.

The true measure of our nation’s greatness is gauged by our attention to the most vulnerable among us: the child, the widow and the orphan, the stranger within the gate and the destitute. That is why I will continue to march and open the doors of our synagogue to feed the striking janitors.

The first recorded labor protest occurred when Moses shepherded the Israelites out of Egypt to escape slavery.

When we sit at the seder table this Passover, we will hear these words: “This is the bread of affliction; let all who are hungry come and eat.” Written in Aramaic, this statement begins the narration of the seder by inviting the hungry to our table. Aramaic, Jewish legend has it, is the one language that the angels do not understand.

Why then is “Ha lachma ” spoken in Aramaic? To teach us that where there is hunger, no one should rely upon the angels; no one should pray to the heavens for help. We know the language of the poor, for we were poor in the land of Egypt. We know that we are called to feed the poor and to call them to join our celebration of freedom.

Let us join them in their strike, that they too may be free.

Steven B. Jacobs is rabbi at Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills.