An Open Letter to Observant Jews: You Should Care about Restaurant Workers

It’s no secret that I’m not Orthodox, or frum, or observant, or “halachically-inclined”, as a friend of mine likes to say. Regardless, I think there is extraordinary value in following the laws of kashrut, which requires not only a commitment to Torah law, but a conscientious and deliberate attitude to food. Keeping kosher means eating with mindfulness, having the certainty of knowing where the food going into your body comes from and is made of. But it does not guarantee anything about those who make and serve that food.

A hechsher on the front of a restaurant is a sign to Jews and non-Jews alike that the food served in the establishment is kosher, that it is ok, that it has been approved. In particular, that it is approved of by Jews; it is marked as acceptable by dint of having risen above the numerous and intricate food regulations that make up kashrut. Furthermore, since hashgachas are expensive, a kosher establishment is making a deliberate decision to appeal to a Jewish constituency. For these reasons, every kosher restaurant is a representative of the observant Jewish community.

Are we happy with those representatives? Are we happy with getting to eat kosher pizza possibly prepared with mistreated undocumented labor? Are we content that the convenience of kosher meat might be paid for with sub-minimum wages? Are we comfortable with restaurants that bear the mark of belonging to a network of Jewish establishments breaking the law?

In other words, do we find it acceptable that restaurants that make it a point to publicly display their accordance with Torah law cling to those relating to food and manage to miss those which implore ethical treatment of workers?

I don’t.

I don’t think it’s ok to wash parsley in soap one moment and shave hours to avoid paying overtime the next (bal tolin). I don’t believe in teaching cooks to check rice for bugs while withholding breaks that are standard restaurant policy (minhag hamakom, dina d’malchuta dina). We can’t demand attention to the difference between milchig and fleischig and not to the difference between justice and indifference.

If torah is an all-encompassing ethical guide, it must compel adherence to the laws which are, unfortunately, ignored, as well as those which grant economic and social capital. After all, all laws of torah carry equal weight, so what does it say about the Jewish community that we privilege the exactness of kashrut standards over the ethical weight of the torah’s many calls to justice?

Not anything good. So it is the mission of Uri L’Tzedek, the Orthodox social justice organization I am working for this summer, to revitalize awareness to Torah-mandated justice in the restaurant world. I spend my days walking up and down the streets of New York City, asking restaurant owners to sign up for the Tav HaYosher, an ethical seal. A restaurant which has the Tav has established that they pay their workers minimum wage and overtime and provide a safe and comfortable working environment. The Tav celebrates those restaurants that are doing right by both Torah and secular law. It indicates an observant Jewish concern for the lives and well being of workers in accordance with core Jewish values.tavlogo

If you think this is important, and I hope I have shown that you should, check out Uri L’Tzedek’s website and spread this post around. And if you believe in the continuation of this work, please consider a donation  to support me and Uri L’Tzedek in our work to protect and support workers whose wages are paid by Jewish patronage of restaurants. I’m trying to reach $750 this summer, so anything you feel comfortable with would be appreciated.

You can donate online with a credit card here, where there is also a longer explanation of this fundraising project and pictures of the work the other Fellows and I are doing.

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Thank you for your support.

Other excellent sources on Jewish law and social justice can be found at the following sites:
On Expressing Compassion for Workers and Respecting their Choices
Work, Workers and the Jewish Owner
Priorities in Paying Wages
Social Justice and the World of Business
Paying Workers on Time

Not observant and confused? I’ll have a post up soon about why I do religious social justice work and why it’s awesome.