What is the Jewish community’s involvement in the campaign to raise the minimum wage in Massachusetts?

The Jewish Community’s Role

created at: 2013-12-10The Jewish community has played a vital role in the effort to raise the Massachusetts minimum wage and guarantee all workers paid sick leave. Jews around the Greater Boston area hit the streets and polling places on Sundays and election days. Together they collected signatures to get referenda on the ballot to raise the minimum wage from $8 to $10.50 over three years, and ensure paid sick leave for all workers. Our community organized with our congregations through Massachusetts Faith Voices and through community groups, including the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action (JALSA), the Jewish Labor Committee, Moishe Kavod House, the Hebrew College Rabbinical School social action committee, and the Jewish Community Relations Council.

The Impact

The results were powerful. Along with the wider Raise Up Massachusetts coalition of congregations, labor and community groups, the Jewish community helped collect 285,000 signatures, more than double the total needed to get the referenda on the ballot. Further, rabbis and leaders from every denomination participated in this effort, offering a rare opportunity for the whole Jewish community to work together on tikkun olam, the repair of the world.

Jewish Commitment to Dignity for All

There are numerous sources in the Torah, Prophets and Talmud that demand that we treat workers fairly and allow them enough income to meet their basic needs.  Yet, for me, the most powerful teaching to understand why the Jewish community stepped up is our basic commitment to human dignity.

In a debate in the Talmud, the rabbis ask, “What is the most basic principle of the Torah?” What is the core teaching from the Torah on which the rest of Judaism is founded?

Rabbi Akiva’s famous answer is: “‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18)—that is the most basic principle.” But Ben Azzai disagrees. Ben Azzai says: “I have a greater principle than yours. ‘On the day that God made human beings, they were made in the image of God; male and female God created them’ (Genesis 1:27).” Ben Azzai teaches that everyone is created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, which means that everyone is holy. Everyone has value. And so we must care for everyone. Akiva tells us to love our neighbors. Ben Azzai demands, through b’tzelem elohim, that we must care for everyone, not just our neighbors—not just the people who look or talk or believe like we do. He teaches that our kindness and sense of responsibility for others must not depend on our own self-love, but on our understanding that humans are holy, because they are in the image of God.

This text has real implications in our world today, particularly as the recent recession has forced so many people into low-wage jobs. The Jewish community’s efforts will help ensure that we honor each person as b’tzelem elohim, created in the image of God, by treating every person, and every worker, with dignity.

created at: 2013-12-10Rabbi Margie Klein is the rabbi at Sha’arei Shalom, an independent, member-driven, diverse congregation in Ashland.

Interested in learning more about diversity in the Jewish community? InterfaithFamily has numerous resources.

Learn more about Raise Up Massachusetts here.