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May 2, 2013

AB 241: Human Dignity MUST Start at the Front Doorstep

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/sacred_housekeeping/

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I have had the wonderful opportunity of being a Jeremiah Fellow with Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice.  A major driving force of the organization is the mission to do Tikkun Olam, which is a Hebrew phrase that means "repairing the world."  I am proud of how Judaism places such great importance in being proactive in fighting for social justice.

AB 241

One of Bend the Arc’s major campaigns is their involvement in the fight to pass AB 241, which is a bill that would declare the intent of the Legislature to enact legislation to provide labor protection for domestic work employees.  Existing law generally provides employees with protection regarding wages, hours and working conditions.  Domestic workers have historically been exempted from laws governing the rights afforded to other workers.  Domestic workers are among the most isolated and vulnerable workforce in the state. The unique nature of their work requires protections to prevent abuse and mistreatment from occurring behind closed doors, out of the public eye.  The current version of the bill provides six basic rights for domestic workers: overtime, meal and rest breaks, three paid sick days, workers’ compensation, the right to use kitchens to prepare their own food, and the right to have some time to sleep.    

Rally and press conference on AB 241 held in front of Gov. Jerry Brown's office in Downtown, LA.

Back in the day Jews were the leaders in the labor movement

During my last Domestic Workers Campaign Training that Bend the Arc held, I came to learn of how American Jews had stood at the forefront of labor rights reform for decades, beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Jewish garment workers organized themselves into unions, and Jewish labor activists like Samuel Gompers called for higher wages and safer working conditions for all.  I did further research and saw how some of the earliest labor activists can be found in the Talmud.  In regards to abuse and neglest, Deuteronomy 24:14 says:  "You shall not oppress a hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of your people, or of the strangers that are in your land within your gates."  Another example of workers rights can be found in regard to not delaying the payment of wages.  First mentioned in Leviticus 19:13, the Torah states: "…the wages of a hired servant shall not abide with you all night into the morning."  Minus the use of the word sevant, I loved reading these passages from the Talmud.

How domestic workers have personally impacted me

On top of this campaign being important to me because of my Jewish values, it is also important to me because of how domestic workers have impacted my family.  About three years ago, right before my grandfather passed away in 2010, symptoms of dementia appeared and he started to go down hill.  In the last year of his life, my grandfather was a completely different person.  He went from being a gentlemen’s gentlemen, to being aggressive, unpredictable and without a filter.  He had always been known as a brilliant man with a tremendous amount of dignity and integrity.  He founded the oldest architectural firm in Tampa, FL, and designed the very synagogue and schools that I grew up in.   When my grandpa changed, people became nervous to be around him, and understandably so.  My grandmother became very overwhelmed and decided to hire a woman, Sandra, to help as a caretaker with my grandfather.  Even though Sandra did not know my grandfather when he was healthy, she was still able to see past his behavior, and that at his essence he was a kind and gentle man.  When she told me this, it meant the world to me that she could still see this in him.  She was also able to firmly tell my grandfather that his behavior was not okay, and did it in a way that was without fear, judgment and a demeaning tone.  Although my grandfather had dementia, he could always pick up when someone was talking down to him.  I saw how it would frustrate Sandra at times, when she would witness someone being condescending to my grandfather.  She ended up being a major source of strength amongst the family, and helped us to keep it together as we struggled with our emotions surrounding him.

Unsung heroes

My story is only one amongst many, in which the domestic worker was a major source of strength, and the voice of reason for the family they worked for.  I have come to learn how this is often the case with other workers, however the blessing of their presence is usually not acknowledged.  What I hope to see happen with domestic workers is that like my grandfather, they too have their humanity more seen and respected by society.

'What does it mean to me to have a sacred space??

Since getting involved in domestic worker rights, I have been thinking more about what it means to me to have my home be a sacred space.  With my mezuzah nailed to the front door post, I want people to enter my home as a space of respect, and an open heart and mind.  I cannot help but feel that if any human being is demoralized and dehumanized under my roof, that it is no longer a sacred space.  If I am to adhere to the idea that all human beings are created in the image of God, I believe that we are disrespecting God when domestic workers are not treated with dignity. 

Human dignity must start at the doorstep.

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