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Social Action Groups Fight for Cleaning Ladies’ Rights

by Alice Alexiou

September 7, 2006 | 8:00 pm

I am sitting in a Brooklyn diner, having breakfast with Marlene Champion, 61, a tall, striking woman from Barbados. Champion makes her living as a domestic worker, and right now she works as a nanny caring for a 4-year-old girl in Brooklyn Heights.

Champion is also an active member of Domestic Workers United (DWU), a Bronx-based organization fighting for domestic workers' rights. In the 16 years since she immigrated to the United States, Champion has worked in four households, all Jewish. With the exception of one family that treated her badly, she says she's had good relations with all of them.

Champion felt especially close to a Dr. Steiner, whom she took care of for six years, until he died at 92 with Champion at his side. She was in charge of all his care, prepared his meals, did the laundry and kept his apartment clean. She accompanied him to all the family weddings.

He had specialized in the study of tuberculosis, and he used to tell her stories about his work. Sometimes, he showed her his old slides. You'd make such a great doctor, or nurse, he used to tell her. Champion still keeps a picture of Steiner on her wall, and stays in close contact with his children.

After she finishes telling me her story, I say that my family had a housekeeper when I was growing up. I also say something that she probably already knows: that hiring domestic help is fairly common in Jewish households. And then I ask her what is special, if anything, about working for Jewish families. She smiles. "We're of different races," she says. "But I think we have a lot in common."

When Jews hire people to do household jobs -- anybody who cleans, cooks, does the laundry, cares for children or elderly parents -- we are the ones who represent the privileged class, with the funds to hire help. Jews today are generally wealthier and better educated than the majority of Americans. But the widespread practice of having "help" goes all the way back to our grandmother's day, when even Jewish families in modest circumstances very often had cleaning ladies, perhaps because the wages for domestic work were so low that even working-class families could often afford this small luxury.

"It wasn't as if you were putting on airs," a Jewish lady in her 70s told me. "Having a cleaning lady was socially acceptable."

Yet even the term "cleaning lady" indicates the awkwardness employers feel in the presence of a rather un-American class system. We don't need to call the electrician the "electrical fix-it gentleman," after all.

Today, two-career households need housekeepers and nannies and cleaning ladies even more than the stereotypical clean-floor-obsessed housewives of a previous generation might have. Indeed, some of the backlash against the women's movement focuses on this issue: The gains of middle-class women during the last three decades, critics charge, were achieved through the exploitation of other, less fortunate women. And despite the energy that fueled the 1970s efforts to elevate the status of housecleaners -- stating that being paid fairly for a job responsibly done was no different if you were a housekeeper than if you were any other kind of laborer -- those early efforts to make the relationship between employer and employee more businesslike never took hold.

Our relationship with the women who work in our homes is still inherently an unequal one. This fact makes many of us so uncomfortable that some Jewish women refuse to have household help even if they can afford it. Breena Kaplan, 65, is an artist on Long Island who has always done her own cleaning, "It's my schmutz, so I should take care of it," said Kaplan, a "red-diaper baby" who grew up in "the Co-ops," two Bronx apartment buildings populated in the 1940s and onward largely by left-wing Jews.

Her father, who came from Russia, a card-carrying Communist, made "a good living" in the textile business, and he insisted that Luba, his wife, have help in the house. Kaplan remembers Elizabeth, a tall black woman who smelled of starch and soap, standing over the sink, scrubbing the family's wash. But Elizabeth didn't last long, because Luba couldn't stand the humiliation she felt at a black woman coming into her home and slaving away for her in, of all places, the Co-ops.

Some Jewish women attempt to deal with the discomfort they feel at the imbalance of power between them and their domestic workers by reframing the relationship as a collaboration. Carla Singer, a film producer in New York City, employs Grace Smith -- not her real name -- as a twice-weekly housekeeper. Singer says she really only needs Smith one day a week, but, "this is tikkun. I know where my extra money is going -- to support Grace and her son. If I send it to a charity, I don't know where my money is going."

Singer feels that the tikkun, or repair of the world, is mutual -- Smith helped her out at a very difficult time, after Singer had just made a hugely dislocating transition, she said, moving to New York from Los Angeles with her teenage daughter. One day, as Smith was helping them settle into a new apartment, Singer, stressed-out, snapped at her.

Smith shot back: "You know, Carla, we're partners in this."

"She was right," Singer said. "In a sense, she doesn't work for me."

Except that Smith does work for Singer. And it's time, especially in the context both of the global discussion of immigration laws and the more local desperation of working mothers juggling many needs, to talk openly about the relationship between Jewish women and the help -- almost always female -- we employ in the intimate settings of our own homes and families.

According to DWU, virtually all domestic workers today are immigrants, the vast majority of them undocumented, which makes it all too easy for employers to exploit them, wittingly or not. The good news is that there's movement to encourage Jews to treat those who work for us with fairness, as we're enjoined to do as a basic Jewish value.

A series of interviews with both Jewish employers and their domestic workers revealed that, happily, the mutual respect between Champion and the Steiner family is not unique. But I also heard awful stories about Jewish families who treat their domestic workers badly, ranging from subtle to not-so-subtle insults -- recalling Philip Roth's cringe-inducting scene of Portnoy's mother and her treatment of the so-called "schvartze" in "Portnoy's Complaint" -- and a real blindness to the basic needs of the employee to allegations of physical abuse.

Some bosses, in flagrant disregard of Jewish teachings and basic consideration, don't pay their domestic workers on time. "Do not withhold the pay of your workers overnight," it says in Leviticus 19:13. Or, in a striking lack of empathy, some employers don't recognize the dire financial consequences to a day worker who may be counting on the next day's wages to pay the rent, or feed her kids, who gets a call the night before, announcing "I don't need you tomorrow."

Some women mistreat their domestic workers in more subtle ways. Gayle Kirshenbaum, 39, who is active in Jews for Economic and Racial Justice, a New York City-based grass-roots group with the stated goal of injecting a "progressive Jewish voice" into New York City politics, once remarked to a friend, also Jewish, how awful it must be for Caribbean domestic workers to have to leave their children back home with relatives. Her friend disagreed.

"No, it doesn't bother them," the friend said. "They're not like us."

Another woman spoke of her friend, a Holocaust survivor's daughter in her 50s, living in a New York suburb, who confessed to feeling gratified when she ordered around a non-Jewish Polish immigrant cleaning lady.

The one family that Champion said did not treat her well consisted of two ill and elderly parents, whom Champion looked after for eight months, and their adult daughter who lived nearby. The problem, Champion said, was the daughter.

She would buy only enough groceries for her parents; Champion was expected to get her own food. When Champion lifted the father from his bed to his wheelchair -- something she had been trained to do -- the daughter, likening Champion to a man, would call her "Harry."

And one day, when the daughter was visiting, Champion overheard a conversation between daughter and father. The father was telling his daughter how much he liked Champion, so much that he'd like to give her something. Maybe even some stock that he owned.

The daughter was furious. "Oh, no! They're just the help!" she screamed loudly. Champion, although in another room, could not help but hear. "Give it to your grandchildren!"

Money, of course, is a real issue. Many domestic workers are badly paid. According to DWU, some day workers receive as little as $2 an hour; some live-ins are paid $250 a month. DWU recommends a living wage of $14 an hour.

Even though labor laws technically protect all workers, documented or not, in reality the laws fail domestic workers. Domestics do not have the right to unionize, and most are undocumented immigrants, which makes them doubly vulnerable. These facts make it nearly impossible for them to demand such rights as health care, severance pay, paid vacation, sick days, notice of termination -- all things that we would likely assume were due us if we were the employees ourselves. But how domestic workers fare depends entirely on the will, good or ill, of their employers.

Jeannie Prager of Englewood, N.J., spoke about how these issues play out in her tightly knit modern Orthodox community in a New York suburb: "We are the people who seem to hire the most housekeepers. And we're doing a terrible job."

Prager knows this, because over the years she'd gotten quite an earful, both from Victoria Smith (not her real name), her former housekeeper, and from Smith's schmoozing friends, who often hung out at the house.

Prager recently fired Smith, who had been with her for 13 years, providing care to Prager's ailing nonagenarian mother for the last nine of them.

"It was time for a change," Prager said. "She was always on the phone. Her friends who worked in the neighborhood often stopped by for a bite and a chat on their way home. It was all just too much, too much noise and commotion." Letting Smith go was a tough decision, though. "She was a godsend in many ways. And a 13-year relationship, with two women sharing one kitchen, becomes a very close friendship."

When Prager finally got the words out, she gave Smith two weeks' notice and $5,000, six weeks' severance pay. Smith, also eligible for unemployment compensation, was furious.

"I always held you up on a pedestal," Smith told her employer. "But my friends always warned me. And now I see that they were right, that you're just like all the rest."

"The rest," of course, meant "the rest of the Jews." Prager felt horrible. But despite Smith's anger, she and her family paid a shiva call when Prager's mother died shortly after the firing.

Smith declined several requests to speak with this writer directly, though she and Prager stay in touch.

It took Smith seven months to find a comparable job. Prager said she was the one to find it for her. In the Prager household, Smith had two weeks off annually to start, increased to three weeks at her 10-year anniversary, five sick days, three personal days and "of course," said Prager, paid holidays.

Prospective employers, responding to the ad Prager posted for Smith on the shul's Web site, kept telling her they'd never heard of a housekeeper getting paid vacation.

"These things upset me so much," Prager told me. "They give us such a bad name." Worried, Prager approached her rabbi with the idea of starting a discussion in the congregation about practices around hiring household help.

"I feel that if some of these women could speak in a safe environment and say what bothers them, and likewise for their housekeepers, we would all benefit," she said. The rabbi said her idea was interesting, and that was the end of it.

Prager had nailed it, though her rabbi wasn't listening. But at least one rabbi is: Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of the Brooklyn congregation Kolot Chayeinu devoted last year's Rosh Hashanah sermon to employing domestic workers, not a usual High Holidays theme.

"Since we are Jews sitting here together on a night designated for thinking about doing right, it seems crucial that we Jews be thoughtful about and to the people who work in our homes," she said. And often, she added, we are not. "Not out of malice, but out of busyness and lack of thought."

Lippmann cited the story of Sarah and Hagar, whom the infertile Sarah mistreats when Hagar conceives. The Ramban, Lippman said, "says Sarah sinned when she did this and so did Abraham by letting it happen."

She added: "When we hire someone to work in our homes, we must see that person as fully human, seen by God."

Lippmann, like Kirshenbaum, is active in Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ). Two years ago, the group embarked on a "Shalom Bayit" campaign in partnership with DWU. JFREJ also hosts small group discussions in people's homes, the "living room project."

As part of the campaign, the group's members conduct discussions in synagogues about the just treatment of domestic workers. Last year, for example, Kirshenbaum and DWU members Champion and Allison Julien were invited to visit Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, an upscale New York suburb, for the congregation's social action Shabbat. The women spoke about domestic workers' rights.

JFREJ's membership is decidedly left-leaning. In their shalom bayit, or peace in the house, campaign, the group is consciously trying, says Kirshenbaum, "to broach the line between progressive and more traditional Jews." Because it is clear, she says, "how deeply this issue resonates in the Jewish community" in both directions. Jews are employers, she said, and they also want to do right by their employees.

"Doing right" means putting your money where your mouth is. At the living room meetings, JFREJ organizers talk about the specifics of treating domestic workers in a professional manner. Which means, for example, offering full-time employees a contract. The standard contract, based on a DWU model, specifies, for example, what responsibilities the job does -- and does not -- entail, how many paid sick days and vacation days the employee is entitled to, what the rate of payment will be for overtime work, the medical care the employer agrees to pay for, and what the food arrangement will be.

The document explaining the contract goes out of its way to assure employers that using a contract is good for them, too, leading to more loyalty from the employee, and an end to abrupt departures, as there's a "must give notice" clause.

But it may take a while to shift employers from the more casual -- and less fair, though less costly -- model of doing business. The JFREJ-DWU presentation last year at Temple Beth-El of Great Neck, said social action committee chairwoman Alice Fornari, did not get much of a response.

"The evening ends and then it's over," Fornari said. "Nobody talked to me about it afterward."

Other social-action subjects -- stopping the genocide in Darfur, for example -- get a significant response from the whole community, said Rabbi Darcie Krystal, who with Fornari organized the social action Shabbat and was supportive of the domestic workers issue. With domestic help it's a different matter.

"It's a very risky topic for a social action Shabbat," Fornari told me. "People don't want it in their face." People, she said, would rather hear about, say, Israel. In other words, things and places that are far away.

"I don't think most people care about the rights of domestic workers," Fornari said. "They don't feel it's a topic that's relevant to their lives, even though the women they hire are taking care of their homes and their children. People don't want to talk about it because they don't want to do anything about it."

It is a topic dear to her, Fornari said, because of her involvement with each of the housekeepers she has employed over the years in her own home. She helped one, who came from Bolivia not knowing any English, to get into college; the woman is now a teacher. Extensive interviews reveal that many Jewish employers have tried similarly to improve the individual lives of their housekeepers, to whom they've grown close; Fornari's behavior, like Prager's, is not an isolated phenomenon. Fornari is determined to continue the conversation that she started at Temple Beth-El. She would love to see a living room session in Great Neck.

Kirshenbaum described hosting such a meeting at a friend's home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a neighborhood where a majority of the women pushing strollers on the streets look to be other than the babies' mothers.

"There were perhaps 11 people there. We raised issues like the fact that if you go on vacation, you need to pay your domestic worker. And people said, 'But no, if I'm going away, I shouldn't have to pay.' "

"But then," Kirshenbaum continued, "I could see people shifting categories, for the first time. It was like lightbulbs going on. These women had thought of their domestic workers as casual baby sitters, not as women who were counting on this salary to pay their own household bills. And now, they were suddenly realizing, 'We are employers and they are our employees, and of course I get sick leave, so why shouldn't they?'"

"There is no shame in hiring someone to work for us," Kirshenbaum said. "The only shame is in not treating them well."

This article is reprinted with permission from Lilith Magazine: Independent, Jewish & Frankly Feminist. www.Lilith.org.

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