Hundreds of Jewish teens who arrived in Los Angeles on Feb. 15 for the North American Federation of Temple Youth’s (NFTY) biennial convention got a taste of both activism and irony.
Although the theme of this year’s convention was one of social activism — “Clout and Influence” — NFTY’s choice of venue, the Hilton Los Angeles Airport hotel, sparked a protest and picket line by UNITE HERE Local 11, a Southern California union that represents 20,000 workers in the hospitality sector.
The hotel is on Local 11’s boycott list because it has resisted the union’s efforts to unionize hotel employees. For about 90 minutes Friday morning, about 30 people — including members of the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC), an organization that advocates for social issues — formed a picket line at the Hilton’s entrance on West Century Boulevard protesting NFTY’s decision to not honor the boycott.
Leslie Gersicoff, executive director of the JLC’s Western Region chapter, called hosting a social-justice-themed youth convention at a hotel on a union’s boycott list “egregious.” She added, though, that this should not be seen as one Jewish group battling another.
“This is not a fight of Jews against Jews,” Gersicoff said. “It’s one Jewish organization really making a demand that another Jewish organization honor this [social justice] principle.”
She said that NFTY’s responsibility, as a youth organization that cares about labor issues, was to change the venue, regardless of the cost.
“If justice is a matter of money, then we are all poverty-stricken,” Gersicoff said.
NFTY is the youth outreach arm for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the largest group representing Reform synagogues across North America. The labor dispute was only one part of NFTY’s busy conference, which kicked off Friday and ended Monday evening. On Sunday alone, various student groups visited a total of 21 local social service agencies, had lunch at the beach in Playa del Rey and capped the evening with a tour of Universal Studios.
According to Mark Pelavin, senior adviser to URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the organization has a policy to not book events at hotels with labor disputes, but by the time the error was discovered — about two months ago — changing the venue or canceling the event was impossible.
“It’s a mistake that we have to own,” Pelavin said.
But, he added, changing the venue or canceling the event would have been unfair to the nearly 900 students who paid hundreds of dollars to attend — and who have nothing to do with a Los Angeles labor dispute.
“For most high school kids, [the conference is] a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It really was impossible to penalize them for our mistake. There was no other venue that made any sense,” he said.
According to several students at the conference, NFTY sent out an e-mail months ago bringing to light that it made a mistake booking rooms at the Hilton. On Friday, as students socialized in the hotel lobby with old and new friends, the labor dispute was not a topic of conversation, except perhaps among NFTY and URJ staff.
NFTY turned the mistake into a programming opportunity for students. Students had group discussions regarding labor issues on Friday night, and there was a Torah study session related to labor and Judaism the next day.
As an apology for not honoring the boycott, NFTY gave Ralphs grocery store gift cards to the hotel’s nonmanagement staff.
“It’s just another way of expressing our concern,” Pelavin said.