“A few days before Passover, Fernanda, a young Mexican woman, is hired by a Brooklyn cleaning agency to work in the local Jewish Hasidic community. Despite a prolonged wait for her payment, Fernanda continues to faithfully show up for work each day at Nechama’s house. An unexpected connection between the two leads to a fight for justice against the cleaning agency at fault, bridging the gaps between their very different worlds.”
This is the film synopsis introducing the Kickstarter campaign for “Division Ave.“, an independent film written by New York Jewish actor Michal Birnbaum and co-produced by Birnbaum and Lorena Rodriguez. While fictionalized, the story is all too real and emerged from Birnbaum’s horror at learning that every day, on the corner of Division and Marcy Avenues in Brooklyn, poor women, mostly immigrants from Latin America and Eastern Europe, hire themselves out to companies and individuals — often to Jewish people, given the location — for cleaning services, and frequently suffer exploitation, including withholding of wages and sexual abuse.
I asked Birnbaum — the only person to have studied both at Yeshivat Hadar and at the Lee Strassburg Theater and Film Institute — why she felt compelled to make this film and how this particular injustice spoke to her, as a Jew. She said:
“גֵּר יָתוֹם וְאַלְמָנָה לֹא תַעֲשֹׁקוּ”
“A migrant, an orphan and a widow you shall not oppress” (Jeremiah 7:6)
“To me, it is our duty as Jewish people to pay attention to social injustice around us and do our best to fix it. The prophet warns us against exploiting the people who have the lowest status in society – foreigner, orphan and widow. Why does he have to mention this; isn’t it obvious? Well, injustice towards them was probably quite common at his time as well… but that doesn’t mean we don’t have the power to change it today. We got rid of the old fashioned slavery, now we need to make modern slavery a history as well. On a more practical note, we stand before Rosh Hashana, which, similar to Pesach, is a holiday for which many Jewish families hire a cleaning person. I chose to launch the campaign in Elul, and make it last until Yom Kippur, because I wanted to raise awareness to the reality of the domestic workers we employ, and encourage us to treat them with respect and pay them what they deserve.”