Passover Reflections 2016

“Carwasheros:” Modern-day Israelites Rising!

Photo courtesy of RWDSU

by Rabbi Michael Feinberg, Executive Director, Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition

“And they embittered their lives with hard labor…” - Exodus 1:14

So we read of the Israelites suffering in bondage in ancient Egypt, as we gather at our Seder tables this and every Passover---Passover, the “Season of our Freedom.” 

And this year we invite new guests to our Passover feast -- in accordance with the injunction “Let all who are hungry, let them come and eat with us:” the low-waged immigrant workers in the car wash industry, the carwasheros.

Contemporary carwash workers in our own cities, whose lives are similarly embittered by hard physical labor, at poverty level wages and under dangerous working conditions. 

Carwasheros, many of them undocumented and at risk of deportation, acting together at great personal risk to better their lives, and those of their families---organizing, striking, rallying for dignity, for a living wage and safety on the job.

Carwasheros, rising up from latter day bondage and economic exploitation, successfully unionizing in New York City and Los Angeles, together with their partner union the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).

Carwasheros, through their collective action bringing much needed reform and regulation to an industry in much need of it, pushing through to successful passage the Carwash Accountability Act. 

In the Haggadah, the Passover Seder text, we are enjoined to look upon ourselves in every generation as though we personally had come forth from slavery in Egypt.

This injunction is a call to communal memory, to collective action and to engagement, to empathy and Solidarity, with the carwasheros and other low waged workers who are struggling to transform an economy based on greed and inequality into one based on justice. Let us stand with them, and march with them! 

This year in slavery…

Next year in Land of Freedom and Economic Justice!

Worker Justice is Up to Us

by Rabbi Brant Rosen, Jewish Reconstructionist

In Exodus 1:14 the Torah describes the Egyptians enslavement of the Israelites thus:

And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in mortar, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field; all their service, wherein they made them serve, was with rigor. 

What does the Torah mean that the Israelites were made to serve “with rigor?” According to the common understanding, this term refers to enforced work without limit, work without purpose or end – work in which a slave serves utterly at the whim of the slave master.

Notably, once they have left Egypt, the Israelites' experience of "rigorous service” directly informs the way they are commanded to treat their own workers when they settle in their own land. According to Deuteronomy 24:14: 

You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger ... else he will cry to God against you and you will incur guilt. 

In other words, ensuring the safety and dignity of workers is not merely one commandment among many – it is coded into the very DNA of the Torah's most central narrative. The birth of the people Israel is rooted in a story of exploited laborers and their eventual journey to redemption. Indeed, in a very real sense, their essential mission is repeatedly framed as a conscious disavowal of the slave masters of Egypt. 

Thus, the question the Torah places before us is quite clear: what is the nature of the society we seek to create? Will it be an Egypt or a Promised Land?

~ Will we ensure that workers receive basic protections under the law – or will we seek only greater exploitation in service of the bottom line?

~ Will we provide laborers with the dignity of livable wages and adequate benefits – or will we only see sanctity in greater and greater shareholder profits?

~ Will we allow workers the right to organize and engage their employers in collective bargaining – or will we allow workers to be intimidated into collective silence and compliance?

The answer, as ever, is up to us.

Wisconsin Has Become Egypt

by Chad Alan Goldberg, Professor of Sociology, UW-Madison
courtesy of The Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice

The third promise is a promise of redemption: “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm,” says the Lord, “and with great judgments [בשפטים]” (Ex. 6:6).

At first, redemption appears as a single, momentous, exhilarating event: “You have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings” (Ex. 19:4). But it’s one thing to be borne on eagles’ wings from Egypt; it’s another to arrive in the Promised Land. We had to march on our own feet to get there, and it took 40 years. Redemption turns out to be a long road.

Five years ago, during the massive protests against Act 10, it seemed for a moment like we might not lose our freedom—like we might not even need redemption. But we know what happened afterward. Act 10 was passed and upheld, and it was only the first of a series of anti-labor measures. These include Act 55, which the governor has described as an “Act 10 for the University of Wisconsin,” as well as Act 1, which made Wisconsin a so-called right-to-work state. (Although it has been struck down by a Dane County circuit court judge, that ruling will not be upheld by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.) These laws have taken a heavy toll on Wisconsin’s labor movement, and it will take a long, hard struggle—years, perhaps decades of marching—to restore the freedoms they have taken away.

Earlier this semester, I asked my students to read an essay by the German sociologist Max Weber entitled “Science as a Vocation.” Weber closes that essay with a passage from the Book of Isaiah:

One calleth unto me out of Seir: “Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?” The watchman said: “The morning cometh, and also the night—if ye will inquire, inquire ye; return, come.” (Isaiah 21:11-12)

Here is the prophet Isaiah trying to reassure us during the Babylonian exile, when all seemed lost, that we will be redeemed. Many of us may feel like the watchman Isaiah looking for signs of dawn. But Weber in his essay warned that “the people to whom this was said has enquired and tarried for more than two millennia, and we are shaken when we realize its fate.” He meant waiting two millennia to be delivered from exile. “From this we want to draw the lesson that nothing is gained by yearning and tarrying alone,” Weber wrote, “and we shall act differently.”

Weber was right that “nothing is gained by yearning and tarrying alone.” That was the conclusion that Jewish socialists and Zionists (in some cases they were the same people) began to reach in the late nineteenth century—though to be fair, traditional Judaism was never entirely passive in its conception of redemption.

According to a well known midrash, the Sea of Reeds did not automatically part when the Jews reached it. While the rest of us stood at the banks yearning and tarrying, a man named Nachshon plunged ahead into the waters. Only when he was up to his nose in the water did the sea part.

For the workers of this state, Wisconsin has become Egypt. The story of the Exodus reminds that there is a better place, a promised land in which we can be a free people. It may take a very long time to reach it, but nothing is gained by yearning and tarrying alone. The only way to get from here to there is to join together and march.