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Jewish Journal

Just awards

by Rob Eshman

March 30, 2011 | 12:50 pm

I would like to be able to tell you that the most inspiring words spoken at the 2011 Bet Tzedek annual Dinner Gala, held on Jan. 20 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, were mine.

But they weren’t.

I had three minutes to accept the Rose L. Schiff Commitment to Justice Award on behalf of The Jewish Journal, and I did OK. The award itself was quite an honor for the staff and board of TRIBE Media Corp., the nonprofit corporation that owns The Journal. Because we we didn’t have to give or raise any money to get the award — common practice for honorees — my job on the dais was to explain to the 1,200 supporters present why a news organization could deserve such an honor.

The best I could come up with was that we strive to practice journalism the way Bet Tzedek practices law — to the highest standards of the profession, with a common goal of bringing a greater measure of justice, accountability and humanity into our community and our world.

But even as I said the words, I didn’t think I nailed, exactly, why we do what we do, and why Bet Tzedek does what it does. 

Then I heard Michelle Williams Court, the organization’s vice president and general counsel, quote a man named Jack H. Skirball. Skirball, it turns out, was more than a cultural center off the 405 Freeway. Ordained as a rabbi, he left the clergy to pursue a successful career as a movie producer and real estate developer.  He left a great deal of his wealth to the Jewish community.

“I believe so deeply in the values of the Jewish tradition,” Williams Court quoted Skirball, “a tradition that has so much to contribute to the ideals of peace, social justice, integrity and moral concepts.”

Skirball wrote those words in his last will and testament. A more succinct and powerful case for Jewish giving would be hard to find. Though he gave away a fortune, those few words may be among his finest legacies.

But, that night at the Beverly Hilton, someone else said it even better. The lights dimmed, and it came time for one of those promotional videos that usually provide the perfect cover to drain the last few inches of wine from the table bottle. 

In this video, an African-born woman named Alice came on the screen and began speaking of the horrific abuse she suffered as a domestic worker at the hands of a family from Dubai. They worked her for weeks on end, from 6 a.m. to 3 a.m. They refused her food, forbade her to speak, withheld her pay and her legal documents, and, on several occasions, struck her in the face.

“It all happened over there,” she said in the video, pointing to the apartment where the family enslaved her. I recognized the building immediately: It was on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood, about 200 yards from Sinai Temple.

“They told me if I tried to run away, I’ll be arrested and put in jail,” Alice recounted.

A nanny who came to assist with the children witnessed the abuse and called a friend, who called the FBI. The FBI raided the apartment and took Alice to a shelter run by The Coalition to Abolish Slavery &  Trafficking.

“When I was still in the shelter, I met Kevin Kish,” Alice said. “He really supported me and assisted me with my case.”

Kish is the director of Bet Tzedek’s Employment Rights Project. At the gala, Kish and fellow project attorneys Gus May, Marc Bender and Matthew DeCarolis received the Jack H. Skirball Community Justice Award.

“L.A. is a major port of entry for slave traffickers and their victims,” Kish explained in the video. “And there are industries and people who want free labor.”

According to federal statistics, between 14,000 and 17,000 foreign nationals are trafficked into the United States each year, forced to work in the sex trade, factories or private homes. The Employment Rights Project seeks justice on their behalf, as well as for low-wage laborers facing abuse and discriminatory treatment. The fact that these men and women work in underground economies for low wages makes them particularly vulnerable to abuse.

For Alice, the three powerful words Kish offered her were, “We believe you.”

Alice helped Bet Tzedek find other household help enslaved by the same family, and the organization began to build a case. A private law firm, Locke Lord Bissell and Liddell LLP, represented by attorney Susan Welde, came on as co-counsel.

Bet Tzedek’s Employment Rights Project, with pro bono help from power firms, has proved a formidable force since its inception in 2001. In one case, Bet Tzedek worked with the powerhouse firm of Irell & Manella LLP to represent nine indigent sweatshop workers in the garment industry who were forced to labor under inhumane conditions at the Seventeen Inc. factory. Each client got her own attorney.

“The hearing room doors opened, and nine Irell & Manella attorneys with rolling litigation bags walked into the room,” recalled associate Aaron Cole.

The plaintiffs walked away with an additional $67,000 in settlements that day.

The Project, with a staff of just four attorneys, has helped more than 2,200 individuals win $6.3 million in negotiated settlements or awarded judgments.

“With the help of Kevin and Susan, we won the case,” Alice said on camera. “Now it’s time for me to start my life afresh.”

The video ended, and the room, for a moment, fell silent.

That was the best speech.  Because the truth is this: In the end, whether as individuals, as organizations or as a community, our deeds will always, always speak louder than our words.

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