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No Sweat: Jewish Camps Pledge to Buy Sweatshop-free Clothing

A campaign to get Jewish summer camps, synagogues and Hillels to buy garments produced without sweatshop labor is gaining strength in California. Eight summer camps and four Hillels in California have signed onto the “kosher clothes campaign” of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit working for social justice.

They have pledged to buy all their garments from manufacturers that do not use sweatshop labor, and to educate students and campers on the connection between Jewish ethics and fair labor practices.

“We’ve started with Jewish groups because we’re a Jewish organization, and there’s a link between Jewish texts and Jewish values, and workers’ rights and ethical consumerism,” says Sarah Church, who is coordinating the alliance’s southern California campaign.

Church is developing a three-lesson plan for day schools, religious schools, Hillels and other Jewish youth groups. It will be ready in the fall, she says.

The campaign is particularly relevant to Jewish organizations, the alliance says, because of the historical connection between American Jews and the garment industry. Many Jewish immigrants worked in clothing sweatshops in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and were active in the early struggle for workers’ rights. Jews are still prevalent in the textile industry at the manufacturing and retail levels.

Those who have signed onto the campaign say it’s time to make sure the Jewish values they’re teaching are reflected in their purchasing decisions.

“A Jewish organization should be operating according to Jewish values, which includes the right of a laborer to make a fair wage,” says Rabbi Jonathan Klein, rabbinic director of Hillel at the University of Southern California. “It’s very simple: It’s a moral obligation to avoid sweatshop labor.”

Similar “ethical consumer” initiatives are cropping up elsewhere in the Jewish world. On June 28, the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements became founding members of the Informed Meetings Exchange, a national group supporting good working conditions in the hotel industry.

Noting the millions of dollars the movements spend every year on conference facilities, leaders of the movements announced that they would evaluate working conditions at facilities before agreeing to hold events there.

It’s all part of putting Jewish values to work, says Mark Pelavin of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, a signatory to the exchange.

“When we walk into a convention center, we always ask about recycling, labor issues, environmental policies, fair trade coffee,” he notes. The exchange “will now do that work for us and help us make the best informed decisions we can.”

Buying sweat-free garments and Fair Trade coffee are just two examples of what people can do, Pelavin says.

“What can we do at the congregational level? What can people do in their homes?” he asks. “These are the kinds of choices everyone can make.”

Rachel Biale, regional coordinator for the alliance in northern California, says pledging to avoid sweatshop labor is important, but it’s just as critical to educate young people about the reasons why.

Biale is traveling this month to participating camps, holding workshops for the kids on social justice, using Jewish texts, newspaper stories, and her organization’s own “No Shvitz” booklet to get her message across.

At Camp Newman, a Reform summer camp in California’s Napa Valley, more than 100 ninth- and 10th-grade campers spent an afternoon exploring these themes with her.

They studied talmudic and biblical injunctions against exploiting workers. They checked the tags on each other’s T-shirts to see where they were made and what workers there would have been paid, using charts showing minimum wages in various countries.

They learned about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 garment workers in 1911, and compared those working conditions to sweatshops today in the United States and the Third World.

“Who thinks their clothing was made in a sweatshop?” alliance intern Julia Hubner asks a small group who have just looked at each other’s tags. Eight raise their hands — the other two are wearing shirts made in the United States.

“Whose shirt was made in Indonesia?” Hubner asks, pointing to the minimum wage chart, which shows Indonesia’s at 10 cents per hour. “What could you buy with that money?”

“Six pieces of gum at 7-11,” one girl answers. “I don’t think I’d be able to live on it.”

At the end of the day, the campers somberly evaluate what they’ve learned.

Sam Sugarman, 15, of Oakland, says he had thought about the issue before, but the workshop put it into Jewish perspective.

“We feel that people should be treated fairly and get paid equal wages,” he says.

“I realized that our lives are so much better than theirs,” says Amy Barr, 15, of Santa Cruz, Calif. “And all our stuff is made by people like them.”

The alliance gives participating schools and camps a list of approved garment manufacturers, Biale says. Some buy from that list, while others have their own sources.

Economics can complicate the issue. Barbara Chotiner, camp director at the Contra Costa JCC in Walnut Creek, Calif., says the camp can’t commit to buying sweatshop-free garments because their T-shirts are donated to them.

Camp Kadima, a federation-supported Jewish community day camp in Pleasanton, Calif., had a long-standing relationship with a local Jewish T-shirt vendor when they signed onto the campaign. Camp director Sharon Cohen says she didn’t want to hurt his business by switching vendors, and was delighted when the man produced certification showing that he bought garments from a sweatshop-free manufacturer.

“Even though we were already buying from a sweatshop-free place, it’s good to be able to say that we’re now doing it consciously,” Cohen says. “We’re a Jewish camp that teaches Jewish values, and I don’t know a better value than to actively do what we teach.”

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