September 19, 2002
Get a CLUE to Help the Poor
"It's not someone else's problem. It's our problem." The problem Devorah Shubowitz is talking about: poverty.
Over the summer, Shubowitz worked with Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) to study the Jewish working poor in Los Angeles.
Through CLUE, more than 400 religious leaders throughout Los Angeles County have already helped hundreds of workers unionize for better wages, and helped refugees threatened with deportation to become citizens. Now the efforts of CLUE, and the Jewish interns who worked with the organization this summer, are focused on extending those successes, bringing awareness of the working poor to congregations throughout Los Angeles.
Shubowitz came to CLUE from New York, where she teaches at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, a center for women's advanced study of classical Jewish texts. Mark Goodman and Jennifer Flam, rabbinical students at the University of Judaism, also worked with CLUE over the summer. In addition to studying the problem of the Jewish working poor in Los Angeles, their summer internship included helping organize Santa Monica residents of all faiths to support a living wage initiative for hotel workers, and reviving the "Sanctuary" movement of the 1980s.
With inspiration from the prophets (Goodman likes to quote from Jeremiah because, "All he ever talked about was 'We must have done something wrong and you haven't been good to other people,'") the Jewish interns at CLUE worked all summer with clergy and lay leaders of all faiths in support of social action. "It was a summer internship," Flam said, "but it's a life's work."
The big project for CLUE these days is on the November ballot in Santa Monica. Measure JJ, the Living Wage initiative, would increase wages for as many as 2,000 hotel workers in Santa Monica's coastal tourist zone. In the wake of a Labor Day project called "Labor in the Pulpit," in which CLUE-affiliated clergy delivered sermons on the issue, the group plans to hold a get-out-the vote kickoff event on Sept. 22, featuring a performance by folk group Peter, Paul and Mary at Santa Monica City Hall. "CLUE is a bridge between both sides," Flam said, "We're not bound to the unions, and there are ethical business owners who work with us."
For workers who have been lost their jobs for their unionizing or living wage efforts, CLUE is reviving the Sanctuary program, first used in the 1980s when thousands of workers were threatened with deportation, often back to repressive regimes. CLUE encourages clergy and congregations to publicly support the fired workers. "Even though people are not losing their lives this time, they are losing their livelihoods," Flam said of the program.
One of the biggest problems the CLUE interns faced in trying to bring Jewish congregations into the fight for economic justice was in presenting the working poor as a "Jewish" problem. Working with the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, CLUE's executive director, and local rabbis including Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Sholom and Steven Carr Reuben of Kehillat Israel, CLUE's interns supplemented their organizing efforts with a study of poverty among Jews in Los Angeles. They found that, "Poverty among working people also plagues the Jewish community here," Goodman said. And the solution requires more than money.
"The Jewish response to poverty has been more about giving than creating societal change," Shubowitz said. "The problem won't be alleviated by giving people food."
To support that societal change, Shubowitz, Goodman and Flam undertook a study of Jewish working poor in Los Angeles. Starting with figures provided by a Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles study, they interviewed Jewish workers, counselors at Jewish Vocational Service of Los Angeles and local rabbis. They found Jewish workers, primarily immigrants from the Former Soviet Union or Israel, who worked solely for tips, or below the minimum wage, without any type of health insurance, even after years at the same jobs -- the same conditions that non-Jewish low-wage workers face. "Our purpose has been to demonstrate the connection between Jewish poverty and poverty at large," Shubowitz said, "We have the same problems -- immigration, lack of organization to fight this problem. It's important the Jewish community get connected with other communities doing this work."
"At least 13 percent of Jews in the Los Angeles area make below $10,000 a year," said Flam, citing the Federation study, "When we spoke with Jewish leaders, they knew nothing about them." Part of the reason Jews and Jewish leaders have not been aware of the problem of Jewish poverty has been that poor Jews are often not affiliated with the larger Jewish community. "It costs a lot of money to be affiliated," Flam noted.
Goodman noticed another reason for the lack of awareness, "The problem of our not recognizing [Jewish poverty] stems from generalizations -- really, internalized anti-Semitism. We believe that all Jews are wealthy." The study, which Shubowitz expects to be finished by the end of October, will be publicized by CLUE; the Board of Rabbis of Southern California has also expressed interest in distributing it.
The three CLUE interns said that when they spoke to congregations, "Jews didn't know what was going on. Frequently people are shocked," Flam said, "Usually once people understand what's going on, we get a strong response."
With awareness raised, and their summer internships over, the CLUE alumni continue to work to turn concern into action. "Is it deliverance or DiGiorno?" Goodman asked, "Do we wait for God or do we make justice at home?"