More than 100 Jews from all three Madison synagogues gathered Feb. 25 to celebrate Shabbat with services in the Wisconsin State Capitol. Four Madison rabbis led the services for the community members who had crammed into the North Gallery.
Below us, the Capitol Rotunda was teeming with energy—protesters from all over the state were waving signs of opposition to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget repair bill.
Singing Shabbat psalms and reciting prayers, we had found a Jewish expression for our deepest values—values of community, education and justice; values of respecting the elderly and caring for the poor, the sick, the mentally ill and the disabled; values of discussion, debate and compromise.
The governor’s legislation threatens these values.
His budget repair bill has nothing to do with solving an emergency budget crisis, nor does it have to do with curbing the excesses of labor unions. This is about political power: Destroy the unions and you have destroyed a key institution representing the interests of the middle and working class.
If this were only about balancing the budget, there would be no need to strip workers of their right to organize or to ram through the legislation without negotiation, compromise or even debate.
Jewish support for the labor movement often stems from religious texts mandating workers’ rights. As the Torah states, “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer.” Or it stems from pride in our involvement and leadership in the labor movement in the early 20th century.
While Jewish opposition to Walker’s attempts to destroy labor unions is certainly rooted in these religious and secular ideals, it also centers on fundamental questions at the heart of our Jewish values: What kind of society do we want to live in? What kind of world do we want to leave to our children? How can we stand idly by when proposed legislation will devastate the very fabric of our communities?
Last week all eight rabbis in Madison representing the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements of Judaism signed on to a letter distributed to colleagues throughout the country that strongly opposes Walker’s proposed legislation. We have enjoyed deep and broad support for this letter because there is a significant consensus that the governor’s bill will have dreadful effects on our state.
Walker and his supporters have tried to pit the public sector and their unions against the private sector, which is largely not unionized. Yet we know that with this legislation we all lose. We all lose because his legislation will drastically reduce the quality of our public schools, state universities and park system, as well as our nursing homes, child care centers and hospitals.
This is an affront to our Jewish values. Far from being a coddled class, public employees are our teachers, bus drivers, prison guards, firefighters and police officers—the very heart of our communities. They are streaming into our Capitol day after day from around the state because their livelihood is in jeopardy.
It is not just the public employees who are protesting. The more than 70,000 people who converged on the Capitol on Feb. 26 were quite diverse: young and old, rural and urban, wealthy and poor. It is a testament to how deeply they care about our future. Their passion and commitment demonstrate our human capacity to raise our voices when people’s health, security and well-being are threatened and to work diligently to create a better world.
As Rabbi Hillel once said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Laurie Zimmerman is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Madison, Wis.