Justice, Mishegas

In case we might forget…Home is Where the Work Is Too

Following on Ruby K’s great post below, the JTA syndicated a piece that recently ran in Lilith magazine called, “Who cleans your home?“:

I am sitting in a Brooklyn diner, having breakfast with Marlene Champion, 61, a tall, striking woman from Barbados. Champion makes her living as a domestic worker, and right now she works as a nanny caring for a 4-year-old girl in Brooklyn Heights. Champion is also an active member of Domestic Workers United, a Bronx-based organization fighting for domestic workers’ rights. In the 16 years since she immigrated here, Champion has worked in four households, all Jewish. With the exception of one family which treated her badly, she says she’s had good relations with all of them…
Some bosses, in flagrant disregard of Jewish teachings and basic consideration, don’t pay their domestic workers on time. “Do not withhold the pay of your workers overnight,” it says in Leviticus 19:13. Or, in a striking lack of empathy, some employers don’t recognize the dire financial consequences to a day worker who may be counting on the next day’s wages to pay the rent, or feed her kids, who gets a call the night before, announcing “I don’t need you tomorrow….
Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of the Brooklyn congregation Kolot Chayeinu devoted last year’s Rosh Hashanah sermon to employing domestic workers, not a usual High Holidays theme. Lippmann cited the story of Sarah and Hagar, whom the infertile Sarah mistreats when Hagar conceives. The Ramban, Lippman said, “says Sarah sinned when she did this and so did Abraham by letting it happen.”
She added: “When we hire someone to work in our homes, we must see that person as fully human, seen by God.”…
“I could see people shifting categories, for the first time,” said Kirshenbaum. “It was like light bulbs going on. These women had thought of their domestic workers as casual babysitters, not as women who were counting on this salary to pay their own household bills. And now, they were suddenly realizing, ‘We are employers and they are our employees, and of course I get sick leave, so why shouldn’t they?’ ”
“There is no shame in hiring someone to work for us,” Kirshenbaum said. “The only shame is in not treating them well.”

Jeremy Burton over at jspot also wrote on this piece.
Domestic Worker’s United just released an eye-opening study called “Home is Where the Work Is: Inside New York’s Domestic Industry”. The interviews, stories and facts are really a remarkable compilation that will be an invaluable resource for years to come. Both JFREJ and Brennan Center provided employer surveys and interviews for the report, and JFREJ has been working with DWU and is continuing to support DWU’s work in NYC synagogue communities “over the next 2 years through advocating for change in employment practices and educating and empowering members to speak out and educate other members and the community at large about Jewish values and domestic labor.”
If you are in New York, or are a member of a synagogue and would like to work with JFREJ in making this issue a part of the social action and dialogue of your congregation, get involved with JFREJ’s Shalom Bayit campaign. For resources on best employment practice, standard working contract, sample pay stubs or to learn more about Domestic Worker’s rights in New York City, visit JFREJ or DWU‘s website.

7 thoughts on “In case we might forget…Home is Where the Work Is Too

  1. thanks for posting this cole. i saw that article in lilith and it’s just so important. people in nyc should check out Circus Amok’s:*CITIZEN*SHIP*: AN IMMIGRANT RIGHTS FANTASIA IN 10 SHORT ACTS in Riverside Park on Fri, Sunset Park on Sat, and continuing to travel all month.
    Time Out New York Reports:

    Citizen Ship: An Immigrant Rights Fantasiain 10 Short Acts is a free-form barrage of juggling, costumed slapstick, pogo-stick dancing and acrobatics that melds ardent activism with satire and storytelling to enlighten audiences about immigration issues. Kicking off Friday 1 at Riverside Park, the show includes a puppet version of President Bush suffering from a Scroogian nightmare, dancing papier-m?ch? goats (an analogy for the U.S.’s scapegoating of immigrants) and a juggling routine that Ward describes as four ball-tossers “trying to flee the U.S. and get back to South America, where they can be in show business and have access to free health care.”

  2. This is such bullshit, okay? Get the fuck over yourselves. Jews hire domestics? So do WASPs and Indians and even Blacks. Crazy, right?
    And Jews sometimes mistreat them?! Or don’t pay them on time?! Or perhaps even ask them to do something without saying “If it pleases you, and if you forgive me for the white race’s historic mistreatment of your people…” ??
    For chrissakes, people!
    If Jews are just the same as everyone else, why not cut us slack the way you cut everyone else slack? You don’t see Cardinal Egan chastising his upper east side parishioners about how they treat their help. Some people are assholes and some aren’t – doesn’t matter whether they wear a Chai or a Crucifix.
    And if Jews are supposed to be held to a higher standard – – aha – – then shouldn’t you worry just as much about the Torah’s exhortations to eat kosher and keep shabbat, the same way you’re so up-in-arms over the ‘pay workers on time’ clause?

  3. I think the point is that we take responsibility for improving our own communities. Many of us live in many communities–some Jewish, some secular–simultaneously, and we recognize problems in each of them and try to address those problems. Of course it’s not just a problem in Jewish communities. But if we want to mitigate the problems, what better place to start than in our own?

  4. Point well made, Shaz, but I refuse to accept that this issue is a “Community Problem.” It’s just not. Intermarriage is a community problem. Antisemitism is a community problem. Support for Israel is a community problem. Jewish education is a community problem. Making sure you’re nice to domestics is a personal problem, over which community resources should not be expended.

  5. Anonymousless,
    A few points. I don’t fully understand your delineation of what is a community problem and what is not. Who determines what is a community problem and what is not? Something that we hold so dear (Jewish values/laws) should permeate all areas of our lives. So if we can establish that we are guided/obligated by Jewish values/laws to treat employees in a certain way, I can move on to my next point.
    Your second comment highlights specifically why the Shalom Bayit campaign is so important. This issue has been silent for so long because of the very dichotomy that you drew: community/public vs. home/private. The problem is that once you employ someone in your home, that dichotomy ceases to exist. Many people see employing domestic workers in one’s home as a strictly personal thing, but there are definitely some problems with this approach: 1) you deny domestic work as a valid, professional, and dignified occupation (deserving the same respect that middle- and upper-class folks expect from their jobs), 2) you deny that there are employers who actually are genuinely concerned about many issues relating to employing domestic workers in their homes such as fair wages, how to pay on the books, how to interact with an employee when there are language barriers, etc. Those concerned employers are looking for an outlet to share these issues and some guidance on how to alleviate some of these problems. This campaign is not about “being nice to domestics.” Part of the campaign is about the same things that many of us have come to take for granted from our own middle- and upper-class professions: job security, fair wages, a contract, vacation time, etc.
    The last point I want to make is that while you may not see this as an explicitly Jewish problem, the activities of the campaign have shown that there are a significant number of synagogue communities for whom organizing around this issue has proved both fruitful and meaningful. Employers who are synagogue members have found it quite significant to connect with other members of their community over this issue and many are relieved to know that others share their concerns. This campaign is specific to New York, where there are a significant number of Jewish families, many on the Upper West side, Upper East Side, and Park Slope (among other neighborhoods) who employ domestic workers. You might choose to see this campaign as not Jewish. JFREJ (and countless numbers of Jews: employers, employees, and others organizing around this issue) make different choices, and are taking something incredibly meaningful and Jewish from it.

  6. Cole, I agree with you on this. I think it is important for us as individuals and a group to speak out against this sort of workplace abuse. Any chance SEIU 1199 or another union could organize these folks? I’m sure Domestic Workers United is doing good work but these sorts of workers centers can only do so much.

  7. WEVS1,
    Domestic workers are one of two work forces explicitly exempt from labor laws including the right to collective bargain. That is why Domestic Workers United, not a union, is organizing this workforce. Domestic Workers United does have strong allies in the labor community including the AFL CIO and SEIU.
    I must second Saltyfemme –> Though it is true this is not ONLY a Jewish issue, it IS an issue that Jewish communities confront on an everyday basis and have a unique context to take action in. Jews have been at the forefront of labor organizing for generations. Jews have been exploited workers and have also been oppressive employers. Jewish tradition, text, and history provide rich resources to learn about how to work for justice. We are not held to a higher standard than anyone else. But it is for us, to push our own community to stand by the standards our own tradition has set, no?
    Domestic workers in NYC (mostly immigrant women of color) care for many Jewish children and elders and allow many of us to do the work we do. Not to mention that in aggregate, domestic workers are the backbone of the rest of our economy.
    When there is oppression in our homes and our communities it has a strong and negative effect on all of us (including the care of those most precious to us). The Shalom Bayit campaign recognizes this and works to support Jews in creating a healthy and sustainable New York for all who live here- Jews and non-Jews alike.

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