"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
This year, the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, which has treated more than 500 victims of terrorist attacks, including those from the Passover massacre in Netanya, received $250,000 toward its intensive care trauma unit. Sheba Medical Center received $135,000 toward a portable ultrasound system. And Natal, an Israeli trauma center, received $200,000. All the funds came from L.A. Jews.
Over this past year, during which some of the most insidious and relentless suicide bombings in Israel's history have occurred, these Israeli institutions, as well as dozens of others, have received -- and will continue to receive -- millions of dollars in emergency funds, thanks to Los Angeles' Jewish community.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, through its Jews in Crisis (JIC) campaign, funneled emergency funding to Israel within a short window of time. A roster of emergency agencies and trauma centers, mostly based in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, have received millions of dollars earmarked toward everything from hospitals to children's education and bomb-sniffing dogs.
"Our goal was to raise $10 million for Israel as part of our share of the $300 million campaign nationwide [sponsored by United Jewish Committee of North America, the umbrella agency for all Jewish federations]," Herb Gelfand, chairman of Los Angeles' successful JIC campaign, told The Journal. "We also wanted to raise $2 million for Argentina. We've raised $18 million. We're over the national goal [by $8 million]."
In just a few months, The Federation's JIC was able to bring together a windfall of contributions raised from the community, Federation-sponsored events and a plethora of parlor meetings -- fundraising receptions held at the private homes of affluent Jewish individuals. But with the year winding down, The Federation is now shifting gears in its fundraising goals.
"It isn't over," Gelfand said. "We'll continue to raise [JIC] money, mainly through direct solicitations, but we're moving into the end of the regular campaign, and we're careful not to interfere with that, because the regular campaign feeds into The Federation's core services and our constituents here and in Israel."
Ed Robin, who, along with Stanley Gold, is co-chair of the Israel and Overseas Committee at The Federation and is in charge of the JIC's allocations process, said that JIC and the annual campaign are related.
"The general campaign funds the main social services -- the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency," Robin said. "The needs we tried to fund with JIC were specifically toward the crisis."
The JIC's success owes much to the parlor meetings, which became a galvanizing local phenomenon, particularly after the March 27 Passover massacre. Gelfand estimated that about half of JIC's total came from parlor meetings.
"Contributors were very eager to do something," Robin said. "The JIC [through parlor meetings] gave them a tangible outlet to express their concern."
Gelfand credited The Federation's Annette Shapiro and Fredi Rembaum for organizing the meetings. But a key element to JIC's efficiency, organizers said, was The Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, unique to Los Angeles' Federation, which lent the campaign its focus and cohesiveness.
The long-running partnership -- a network of collaborations with Israeli scientists, schools and human service agencies, which until February was directed in Los Angeles by Rembaum -- was able to identify Israel's needs and rally JIC's efforts by April, rather than June, when most federations organized their JIC campaigns.
In addition to parlor meetings, The Federation sponsored missions to Israel to generate awareness of JIC and its efforts, such as the early June entourage during which The Federation presented contributions to various agencies, singles missions and a late summer mission that sent actor-comedian Larry Miller and others to visit campers at the Jaffa Institute for the Advancement of Children.
Los Angeles' humanitarian efforts, consolidated by The Federation through JIC, have provided substantial financial support for continuation of programs. The efforts represented an important statement of solidarity, according to spokespersons at the beneficiary agencies in Israel.
"The gift has been like receiving a dose of oxygen, because it will enable us to purchase essential equipment that we immediately need," said Talia Zaks, deputy executive director of ZAKA. She said the $87,000 that was received will go toward the volunteer-staffed organization, which provides first aid and collects body parts for proper Jewish burial after every terrorist attack. "This money will help us save as many lives as possible," she said.
The Jaffa Institute, which shelters underprivileged children, has worked with The Federation before. JIC raised $50,000 to help the institute build a security fence to prevent terrorists from penetrating its Beit Shemesh campus.
"My immediate reaction," said Dr. David Portowicz, Jaffa Institute's chairman, "was that I could sleep better at night knowing that the 300 children in my charge are not exposed to the risk of a terrorist attack."
Akiva Holtzer, spokesman for Bikur Cholim Hospital, a public facility in Jerusalem, said that its $25,000 gift will go toward trauma center equipment.
"We appreciate the fact that Jewish people worldwide think about us and want to help us," Holtzer said. "The fund will help us provide better services."
"This was the largest gift we've received from any federation in North America," said Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, Natal director of development, of its $200,000 grant. "We were overwhelmed by the generosity of Los Angeles Jewry, and very encouraged by the effort made by the delegation of L.A Jews who visited us in June."
"The [JIC] campaign is providing direct support to nongovernmental agencies that are working directly with individuals," said Marty Karp, The Federation's senior vice president for Israel and Overseas, who is based in Israel. "It is not only providing cash support to help individuals return to good health from physical injuries and psychological anguish, but is also helping those that support them."
Gelfand noted that this year's general campaign, stimulated by JIC, is on the verge of being the strongest since 1990. "If things go where we expect it to go," Gelfand said, "we'll raise $45 million in the general campaign, in addition to a $19 million Jews In Crisis campaign."
This would be an improvement over recent years, when the slowing of the economy and the dot-com crash affected The Federation's fundraising, Gelfand added.
But with the success of this year's emergency relief effort, will there be a need for a JIC campaign next year?
"It depends on what happens in Israel," Gelfand said. "About 50 of us are going to Israel in October, when we'll get a better idea. Of course, there will always be a need. But let's hope that the next six months will bring a relative calm.
"The community has responded extremely well and very generously, as it always does," he added.