Rabbis for Human Rights–North America recently announced that Barbara Penzner, head Rabbi of Temple Hillel B’nai Torah in West Roxbury, is the recipient of their prestigious Human Rights Hero award for her fervent commitment to social justice and efforts to promote human rights in the Boston community and beyond.
Penzner will receive the award at a reception in New York this December, where she will be lauded for her crusades against modern slavery, as well as for her ongoing support of interfaith cooperation and infusing Jewish values with meaningful social change.
Through her involvement with the Jewish Labor Committee, Penzner developed a keen interest in labor issues and workers’ rights. Most notably, she spearheaded a movement against Hyatt hotels for what she claims were immoral firing procedures.
In August 2009, Hyatt fired all 98 housekeepers at their three Boston-area hotels. Penzner explained that since these are not union hotels, they had no recourse for their actions.
“The housekeepers were given no notice. They were handed black plastic bags, told to empty their lockers, and leave,” she said.
As her anger over the issue escalated, Penzner looked for support from fellow clergy in the Boston area to raise a collective moral voice on a critical labor issue affecting the greater community.
“This all happened around Rosh Hashanah, so I asked a number of Rabbis to join me in protesting,” she explained. “The movement snowballed and we managed to get over 200 clergy—about 70 from Massachusetts alone—who understood that what was happening was immoral.”
Penzner’s commitment to Judaism lays at the core of her fight against social injustice.
“The way they allow the management to run the hotels is completely against Jewish values,” she said.
Her work has led to critical change throughout the country. Boycotting efforts against Hyatt have extended to Chicago, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Honolulu, Toronto, and Indianapolis. Penzner also published a report entitled “Justice at Hyatt,” where, she explains, “Rabbis interviewed Hyatt workers and declared that Hyatt hotels are ‘lo kasher’ (not kosher).”
Penzner has also been actively involved with Rabbis for Human Rights–North America, most notably through her efforts in fighting slavery and promoting rights for migrant workers. She travelled on a mission to Immokalee, Florida, where she spent extensive time with tomato pickers and gained a better understanding of the harsh conditions under which the farms operate.
“The migrant workers down there are enslaved, abused, and treated horrendously,” she said. “We’ve been successful in fighting slavery and getting dignity for these migrant workers.”
She has brought these efforts back to the congregation at Hillel B’nai Torah, where congregants are trying to get Trader Joes markets in Boston to sign a code of conduct, promising to only buy products from companies that agree to treat their workers with basic human rights.
Penzner has mobilized her congregation to support her human rights work; in doing so, she has created a unique community that fuses religious values and a commitment to Judaism with a passion for universal human rights.
“Our synagogue was the first Jewish organization to join the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization in the late 1990s, and we have been observing Human Rights Day for the last several years,” she said. “On Human Rights Shabbat, we read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights instead of that week’s Haftorah.”
Penzner’s involvement in the Boston Jewish community is deeply rooted. She moved to Boston in 1987 after finishing Rabbinical school, and went on to work for the Commission on Jewish Continuity. She also served as president on the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis for two years, in addition to her multiple involvements with Rabbis for Human Rights–North America.
The North American chapter of Rabbis for Human Rights stemmed from similar efforts in Israel, and is an organization that unites Rabbis of different backgrounds in a common mission to advocate for social justice. The organization finds its inspiration from Jewish historical experience and teachings in Torah, as well as from the basic tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Penzner is thrilled about winning the Human Rights Hero award, and she wishes to thank her congregation for supporting her efforts in the community.
“[My congregation] supports the work that I’m doing, and they were the ones who wrote letters and encouraged Rabbis for Human Rights to give me the award,” she said. “I couldn’t be the Rabbi I am today without my congregation.”
Image from Temple Hillel B’nai Torah