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Next Wednesday, at Yom Kippur services around the world, including multiple at Harvard Hillel, Jews will read from the book of Isaiah:
“Loosen the chains of wickedness, undo the bonds of oppression… The Lord will answer you when you call, saying, ‘Here I am’ if you remove from your midst the yoke of oppression.”
After surviving the Holocaust while watching nearly their entire families perish, my maternal grandparents immigrated to the United States. My grandfather worked his way up in the grocery and restaurant businesses. Eventually, he and my grandmother were able to purchase their own restaurant, which they then managed. My grandfather would leave his home in the Bronx before five in the morning to go to the restaurant in Lower Manhattan, not returning until after seven at night. The work was hard: He was on his feet all day in a hot kitchen, with the constant stress and demands of hungry and rushed New York City customers. But, in many ways, my grandfather fulfilled the American dream. He provided for his family; his daughter eventually earned a Ph.D. from Columbia; and he is survived by well-educated grandchildren and great-grandchildren who live in relative material comfort, and with nearly boundless career choices. His ability to achieve this depended not just on his willingness to work hard, but also on being treated fairly. My grandfather took this to heart and often told me about how important it was to him to treat his own employees well.
Motivated in part by my grandparents’ experience, when I was a rabbinical student, I directed a non-profit program, the Tav HaYosher (or “Ethical Seal”), which sought to protect the basic rights of employees in kosher restaurants. During this time, I was heartened by the restaurants I visited whose owners cared deeply for their employees; they always paid their workers on time, provided at least minimum wage and overtime pay, and provided a safe and abuse-free working environment. Some owners even paid their employees when the restaurant was closed on Jewish holidays, and there were quite a few employees who were so valued by their employers that they continued to work for them for decades.
But I also saw the dark side of the food industry: Workers paid below minimum wage, verbally abused and threatened, stolen from, and stripped of their dignity. When I would interview these workers, their sense of vulnerability was palpable and terrifying.
Thankfully, Harvard University Dining Service workers are treated far better than many of the employees I talked to in New York restaurants; they are paid on time and receive hourly wages well above the minimum required by law. Nevertheless, in speaking with HUDS workers over the past few weeks, I’ve heard a too-familiar sense of vulnerability. With an expected increase in healthcare costs for most employees, many are afraid they will be unable to take care of their families. And while hourly wages may be decent, not all employees are provided with enough hours to be considered full-time. Most employees receive work only during the academic year, forcing them to find employment elsewhere during the academic recess, a substantial hurdle as few employers are looking for employees to work only during the summer. Trying to balance the schedules of multiple part-time jobs can be nearly impossible.
For a number of employees I spoke with, the most difficult part of this labor dispute is that they are surrounded by so much wealth and so many world-class resources at Harvard, not to mention Harvard’s $35 billion endowment. The HUDS employees feel like they live in a forgotten corner of the University.
One of the central pieces of the Rosh Hashanah prayer service that we recited this week is Zichronot—“Remembrances.” This section of the liturgy repeats a refrain, taken from instances in the Bible, of God remembering. There is no traditional Jewish conception of God as one who might forget, so it seems surprising that we mention moments when God remembered. Perhaps, though, the liturgy is meant to convey the despairing power of feeling like one has been forgotten and the reciprocal healing power of knowing one is remembered.
As a token of support for the HUDS workers, to remind them that they aren’t forgotten and that they don’t shoulder their burden alone, I will be giving my salary for this week to the striking HUDS employees who work at the Hillel dining hall. I hope that students and other members of the broader Harvard community will find their own ways to demonstrate support for HUDS employees. In so doing, may we see a speedy conclusion to this dispute and may we all merit the blessing of Isaiah: “Then shall your light rise in darkness and be bright as noon.” May that light shine in every corner of the University.
Rabbi Dani Passow is the Harvard Hillel Orthodox University Chaplain.
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