These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[Alumni Guest Post] Serving Up Justice in Jerusalem

Posted on January 30, 2012 by The Director of Digital Media

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by Ruhi Sophia Motzkin Rubenstein

I had been studying at the Pardes Institute for a few months last year when I heard a presentation by Dyonna Ginsburg, then director of a small amuta called Bema’aglei Tzedek . She described the situation of the working poor, and particularly contract workers in Israel, the gap between the ideals of progressive Israeli labor law and its on the ground enforcement.

It could have been just another god-awful “bad news in Israel” presentation, except that Bema’aglei Tzedek, a tiny, financially stressed non-profit based in Talpiyot, actually has some very smart and innovative mechanisms for addressing these problems, through a combination of education, consumer empowerment, advocacy and community organizing.

One of their projects is the Tav Chevrati, a certification for Jerusalem restaurants that provide handicap access and treat their workers well. It’s very impressive that a third of all Jerusalem restaurants hold the Tav, until we consider the standards don’t really differ from Israeli labor law.

Then again, it’s still heartening, because the Tav has only existed for 6 years. When Dyonna Ginsburg first committed to eating only at Tav-Certified restaurants, there were only 5. When I committed this year, almost all of my favorite restaurants were already on the list. Not every restaurant that is without the Tav is in violation of labor law. Bema’aglei Tzedek outreaches to consumers, and the Tav is granted free of charge, so businesses receive the Tav by coming to them. Some are fine, and simply haven’t heard of the Tav, or haven’t thought that their customers cared enough for it to be worth it to ask Bema’aglei Tzedek to grant them the Tav.

But what if they were wrong? What if vast numbers of Jerusalemites and gap year students started telling business owners that it matters to them how they treat their workers? What if Jerusalem restaurants started hearing from their customers, “If your working conditions aren’t good enough for the Tav Chevrati, they’re not good enough for me!” The businesses that were doing fine would get the Tav pretty quickly – and, more importantly, so would the businesses that weren’t doing so well by their workers – until now.

There is now even an incentive to do so. This past month, Bema’aglei Tzedek the “Tav Pledge” – to eat twice a month a Tav-Certified establishments, and let them know that they are there because of the Tav, and let non-Tav holding business owners know that they will be happier to patronize them if they have the Tav. Pledgers will receive coupons for discounts and perks as they continue with the Pledge. If half of the people – even just the Jerusalemites – who read this take the pledge and convince 5 others to do so, the message will get back to the business owners pretty quickly.

This could change lives – the lives of sous chefs, who instead of working 14 hours days at minimum wage would work fewer hours with overtime pay, and be able to both feed and spend time with their families. The lives of dishwashers receiving their mandated day off, and travel compensation. The lives of the wheelchair-bound, who would see signs indicating: “this establishment provides a ramp on request.” We are talking about changing tens and hundreds of lives. This is NOT a revolution. This is not sweeping societal change, or world peace or an end to injustice. This is sustainable justice, which can be served up one spoonful at a time, but it still tastes good.