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Jewish Journal

Jewish Support     for Strikers Mixed

by Marc Ballon

October 30, 2003 | 7:00 pm

On Oct. 26, Associate Rabbi Zoe Klein of Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles served free pizzas, salads and sodas to 15 striking supermarket employees and their families in the shul's social hall. Fifteen congregants ate alongside the baggers and cashiers, offering encouragement and listening sympathetically to their tales of woe.

"We just want you to know that we're a place that cares," Klein said, just moments after leading the group in a spirited rendition of "Hallelujah."

For more than a century, the Jewish community has struggled to make life better for working men and women. Whether founding the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), rallying behind pro-union Democratic politicians or marching with Cesar Chavez for California farm workers' rights, Jews have long been at the forefront of the labor movement. Temple Isaiah's lunch for the disgruntled supermarket workers would seem a reflection of that long-standing tradition.

Not necessarily. Klein said she received seven complaints from temple members about the event. Some objected to mixing religion and politics; others questioned whether the strikers had a valid reason to walk out of their stores; a few said they supported management. The mini-backlash caused the rabbi to lose some sleep.

At a time when supermarket and mass-transit workers have gone on strike over health care issues, Jews, like much of the population, no longer support organized labor as they once did. On a macro-level, union membership is way off, having dropped to 13.2 percent of the labor force in 2002 from 20.1 percent in 1983, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Some Americans have come to see unions as corrupt, bureaucratic and obsolete, said Michael Wissot, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition of Southern California.

Many Jewish immigrants now come from Russia, Iran and other Middle Eastern countries and don't share the social democratic bent common among descendants of turn-of-the-century Ashkenazi Jews, said Joel Kotkin, senior fellow with the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University. And most American Jews today are far more likely to work as entrepreneurs, accountants and business executives than on the factory floor of a union shop, he added.

Changes in Jews' socioeconomic status has also chipped away at their historic loyalties, said Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance in Los Angeles.

"I don't think we're becoming a radical right-wing community," he said. "We're becoming more comfortable. And as we become more entrenched, affluent and assimilated, the emphasis of the Jewish community has shifted so that economic justice, social justice and immigrant rights are no longer front-burner issues."

Reflecting Jews' more nuanced relationship with organized labor, Zev Yaroslavsky, a former union member whose father founded the Hebrew Teachers Union in Los Angeles, now serves as Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) board director.

"I don't see myself as representing management. I see myself as representing the people," he said. "I think the MTA has the moral high-ground here."

The strike has left nearly a half-million riders, many of them poor immigrants, without bus and train service. On average, MTA mechanics earn $50,000 annually, Yaroslavsky said.

That's not to suggest that Jews no longer retain a fondness for organized labor in their collective bleeding hearts. More than two-thirds of Jews are Democrats, giving credence to the old saw that Jews earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans.

Tikkun olam, the Jewish imperative to heal the world, has led many Jews to support unions, environmentalists and affirmative action. According to some rabbis, Jewish scripture endorses the concept of workers' rights, the main tenet of organized labor. Deuteronomy 24:14 admonishes that "you shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether fellow countryman or a stranger in one of communities of your land." Leviticus 19:13 states, "The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning."

Ethel Taft, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Labor Zionist Alliance, said the parking lot of a nearby Ralphs in heavily Jewish Hancock Park is nearly empty. The market's poor business "seems to be a reflection that [Jews] haven't forgotten their roots," she said.

Still, the number of members at the local Labor Zionist Alliance has plummeted since its heyday, down from 3,000 in the 1940s and 1950s to 700 today, Taft said.

Jews' surprisingly strong support for Republican candidates in the recent gubernatorial recall election is among the most telling signs of their slow move to the mainstream, experts said. Although Jews overwhelmingly opposed efforts to remove Gov. Gray Davis, 33 percent of them went for Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger and seven percent for state Sen. Tom McClintock as replacement candidates. In the 2002 gubernatorial race, 69 percent of Jewish voters chose Davis, while only 22 percent went for conservative Bill Simon. The Republicans' strong Jewish showing would seem to augur poorly for Democrats as well as unions.

Cookie Lommel, the new executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee, said she hopes to reverse those trends. To her, supporting labor is consistent with Jewish values. That's why Lommel's group has organized a prayer service on Nov. 2, for striking workers at the Pavilions in West Hollywood. After a benediction by Rabbi Stephen Jacobs, she and 60 Jewish Labor members plan to carry picket signs to show their solidarity.

"I think a real understanding of workers' rights is in the hearts of a lot of Jewish people," Lommel said.

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