This morning the Orthodox Jewish social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek announced a major victory in their 2-year campaign against Flaum Appetizing, a Queens-based hummus producer and food distributor that had repeated labor violations, including wage theft and overtime violations. Flaums has accepted a global settlement which will return over $500,000 to workers for these violations.
The victory comes after a long campaign fought by the workers’ group, Focus on the Food Chain, in partnership with Orthodox social justice organization, Uri L’Tzedek: The Orthodox Social Justice Movement. The campaign and its unlikely partnership spanned from street corners to corporate headquarters, college campuses to houses of worship across the United States. The campaign ultimately convinced 120 grocery stores, multinational corporations, spiritual leaders, and thousands of consumers to support the Flaums workers in their quest for justice.
Workers were subjected to wage theft including a failure to pay overtime and at times the minimum wage, for grueling work weeks as long as 80 hours. Workers from Latin America faced discrimination and abuse including anti-immigrant insults from senior management. When workers demanded payment in accordance with the law, 17 were illegally fired. Flaums lost a National Labor Relations Board trial and multiple appeals, but was still resisting compliance. This global settlement resolves both the NLRB retaliation litigation and a federal lawsuit over unpaid minimum wage and overtime.
This event is dedicated to a woman named Inez,” said Rabbi Ari Hart, one of the co-founders of Uri L’Tzedek, a Modern Orthodox organization that promotes social justice. Their signature program is the Tav HaYosher (Ethical Seal), a certification program for kosher restaurants that meet basic criteria for ethical treatment of their labor. Hart was speaking Sunday night to a packed house in a basement auditorium at the JCC of Manhattan, the setting for “FesTAVal,” a celebration of the recent addition of the 100th Tav-certified restaurant.
Inez, Hart told the crowd, was a woman he and fellow co-founder Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz met in Postville, Iowa shortly after the 2008 immigration raid on Agriprocessors, the large kosher meatpacking plant there. Inez, an illegal immigrant who had worked for Agriprocessors, was wearing an electronic monitoring anklet. Her future was uncertain, but she told Hart and Yanklowitz of the dream she used to have of a better life in America. “That dream was stripped away from her by Agriprocessors. We knew the Jewish community shouldn’t stand for that in the food that we eat,” Hart told the energized crowd. Businesses that have that Tav HaYosher, he said, “have affirmed not just kashrut [kosher standards], but yashrut [ethical standards].” Food workers, Hart said, “are the most vulnerable workers in our society.”
It was after Rabbi Ari Weiss bumped into and spoke with Rabbi Steve Gutow of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs on Rosh Hashanah, that he decided to take the Food Stamp Challenge. This means he would have to get by on no more than $31.50 worth of groceries (the average amount of food stamps granted to a qualifying individual) for an entire week. That’s just $1.50 per meal, without snacks. He knew it wouldn’t be easy, especially since he keeps strictly kosher.
“There were bottles of wine that cost more than $31.50 on the table at holiday meals I had just attended,” Weiss, the director of the Orthodox social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek, told the Jew and the Carrot prior to beginning the challenge, which took place October 27 through November 3. Nonetheless, Weiss was determined — despite the extra difficulty kashrut would pose — to join the many others around the country, including many members of Congress and Jewish community leaders, in experiencing what it is like to be one of the 45.7 million Americans who receive Food Stamp benefits and the one in six American households living in hunger.
During the month of High Holidays, I rediscovered my Jewish conscience. Not in a big, showy way, but in an ”oh this is what this is all about moment.” I was raised on a sort of ‘hallmark Judaism’, which tamed the most radical statements of equality and justice in our tradition. In my suburban synagogue, “justice, justice, you shall pursue,” became “be nice and stand up for your friends.” But that’s definitely not all that it means; it’s a much bigger call to action. It’s a challenge, an order, and the unrelenting, unapologetic demand that we must make this world better for others.
There is a certain righteousness of purpose in challenging the status quo in the name of justice. It’s a noisy, powerful form of protest, but it’s not the only way. Over the past few years, two organizations have been working to make social justice synonymous with kosher food. Their work fills an important need in our community, but it seems worthwhile to pose the skeptical question: can a mere label really change the way Big Kosher Food does business?
For centuries, the system of kashrut helped us to decide whether food was “fit” for us to eat, but contemporary food issues are raising a whole new set of questions about what food we should and shouldn’t eat, which kashrut may or may not be able to answer.
Last May, Siach: An Environment & Social Justice Conversation brought together social justice leaders from across the United States, Israel, and Europe, including those who are developing the idea of Kashrut, to consider such factors as where food come from, who’s serving it, and how are those people treated.
The Passover seder is Jewish drama. Over the evening, a tale of slavery and liberation, despair and hope, narrow straits and open possibilities unfolds. We experience this drama through food. We lift high the matzah, the bread of affliction, for all to see; we taste the painful maror to remind us of embittered lives and oppressive work; we drink four cups of redemptive wine. Food brings these experiences to life. Through eating, we bring these symbols into our bodies.
The Jewish people have retold this drama every year for literally thousands of years; but each year is different. In every generation we continue the work of the Exodus, continuing to fight for freedom and justice in the world. This year, many Jewish groups are adding a chapter to the seder’s never-ending story of oppression and freedom: food justice.
Uri L’Tzedek, in partnership with Hazon and the Bronfman Alumni Venture Fund, just released their first Food and Justice Haggadah Supplement, (available for free download), featuring 26 essays, insights and action to unite food, social justice and ethical consumption.
I recently found myself deep in conversation with Ari Hart, co-founder of the Orthodox social justice movement Uri L’Tzedek. By using Torah as a lens through which to view contemporary issues, Uri L’Tzedek empowers the Jewish community to act as leaders in fighting for justice. The group is currently pressing Flaum Appetizing, a Brooklyn-based food production and distribution company, to compensate a group of former employees over $260,000, in compliance with a National Labor Relations Board mandate.
Flaum, which produces appetizer salads and distributes Tnuva dairy products and Bodek cut vegetables throughout the New York area, dismissed seventeen workers in May 2008 after they organized to protest unfair treatment and underpayment. When the case went to court in February 2009, the NLRB ruled that the firings were illegal and awarded the workers close to $260,000 in backpay. Flaum has yet to remunerate its former employees and is attempting to exempt itself from payment altogether.