A lot of people have been interested in how the tzedek beit medrash in Washington Heights went, so I got Mike Schultz, one of the founders of Uri L’Tzedek to give a little report.

Can you imagine 35 people coming out for an Orthodox group’s social justice learning program, looking to get involved in their local community outside of the shul? It’s a new world within Orthodoxy, and that exciting reality shone through brilliantly at the second Uri L’Tzedek Beit Midrash this past Monday night at Mt. Sinai Jewish Center, in Washington Heights.

The topic for the night was workers’ rights and being an ethical kosher consumer, and the program, hewing to a tight 1.5 hr schedule, moved quickly through many different segments. Shmuly Yanklowitz facilitated and introduced the evening. Then Stephanie Pell broke the room into spiritual chevrutas to discuss questions of our own experience of eating, such as “In what ways could you become more conscious of your food and its origins?” Aaron Finklestein led the more traditional learning portion of the beit midrash, on Workers’ Rights: Ethics, Kashrut, and Kedusha. The sources ranged from biblical commentaries to recent news articles suggesting that much of the kosher consumer market nowadays is in the non-Jewish world who see kosher food as adhering to a higher standard. For that reason, Aaron suggested, kiddush hashem might dictate making sure kosher food does indeed keep to the highest standards in all areas.
Avi Lyon, director of the Jewish Labor Committee, told stories from his visit to Rubashkin’s meat’s AgriProcessors plant, in Iowa, and poor working conditions there, from intimidating workers not to speak to outsiders, to charging workers for their smocks and not paying them for the time required to get into and out of their safety equipment, to the high injury toll. Mike Schultz led a group brainstorm of any and all problems of workers’ rights or being an ethical kosher consumer that were really bothering the people in the room, and people had a lot to say, with a lot of fervor. Steven Exler outlined the cycle of community organizing, presented more facts on Agriprocessors, and asked people what they would be willing to do about it. Shmuly closed out the night by offering multiple opportunities for “homework,” ways to start acting on what we had talked about. 10 people signed up to table for workers’ rights at this weekend’s convention of kosher food producers, KosherFest. Others are planning to start working on pressuring local food providers to carry other meat options. Several people wanted to work on generating more of a halachic discourse on tzedek questions among the poskim. Ari Hart got up to announce that he has begun meeting with local church leaders to establish stronger bonds between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities in the Heights, and a third of the room signed up with him afterwards.
It was an excited, packed room. There was a lot of interest in the group in taking action, getting involved, and also a lot of desire from participants to learn the Torah that was brought and to develop this part of their Jewish identity. The batei midrash will continue every 3 or 4 weeks, open and accessible to all, and now Uri L’Tzedek is starting to move into providing support and partnership for those who are ready to take the lead and get it done in the community.