Social consciousness with Jewish flair


JERUSALEM (JTA) – Standing behind a table covered in pamphlets, a pair of high school girls try to catch the attention of fellow students rushing by with an unlikely call: “Do you know about the exploitation of temporary workers?”

Ahava Katzin, 17, asks one student whether he is aware that the janitors and security guards who work on contract as temporary workers at their school don’t always get benefits due them, such as overtime pay and a pension fund.

“A person can work their whole life and never receive a pension – can you believe that?” asks the incredulous Katzin, an auburn-haired voice student at a music school in Jerusalem.

Katzin is spearheading the effort at her school to involve young people in the struggle for temporary workers’ rights.

She is part of a network of youth volunteers organized by Bema’aglei Tzedek, a group that seeks to bring a sense of Jewish values to social issues in Israel.

The youth are focusing on the plight of temporary workers, called “contract” workers in Israel. About 100,000 Israelis are temporary workers, occupying the lowest socio-economic strata in the country. They are a mix of new immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union and Israeli Arabs who are desperate for work even if it’s often low-paying and unstable.

The students’ activism functions at different levels. Sometimes it’s passing out chocolates and thanking the otherwise anonymous cleaning staff and security guards for their work. Other times it’s lobbying the Knesset for worker-friendly legislation.

The students also meet with the workers themselves to inform them of rights many didn’t know they had. They even review the workers’ pay stubs to check that they have been given the proper payment and benefits. When the students note irregularities, they bring them up with employers.

“Someone who is just trying to make ends meet every month is not going to open his or her mouth and risk losing their job,” Katzin said.

She says she and her fellow volunteers see it as their responsibility to take action. For example, when they discovered that one of the Arab janitors at their school, the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance High School, did not get time off to celebrate a major Muslim holiday with his family, she and a group of other students told him to stay home and volunteered to clean in his place.

“It bothered us that despite all the social movements in Israel, none of them were dealing with the fact that we are a Jewish state,” said Assaf Banner, the director of Bema’aglei Tzedek. “It cannot be that 700,000 children live under the poverty line and 3,000 women are trafficked in any state, let alone the Jewish state, and we had wanted to deal with social justice from a Jewish perspective.”

The organization brings together both secular and religious. Among their volunteer activists are students from religiously and politically conservative yeshivas to the furthest left-leaning youth movements.

“We are working together for a common ideal,” Banner told JTA. “From this perspective an interesting coalition of people are brought together – all of us gathering around the same ideas of what we want our country to look like.”

Bema’aglei Tzedek was formed four years ago and is funded by the New York and San Francisco Jewish federations, along with several American Jewish family foundations and Israeli donors.

Among its other flagship projects is a certification process for restaurants, cafes and wedding halls that grants a “social seal” of approval to businesses that adhere to basic standards of social justice.

This “socially kosher” certification, as Banner describes it, judges business on the rights they grant workers and access to the handicapped. More than 350 businesses in five Israeli cities have been given the seal.

Katzin said focusing on the issue of temporary workers in Israel is important to her because, as a high school student, she and her fellow pupils benefit from their work every day even if they ignore them most of the time and never bother to learn their names.

“Because we are youth we wanted our struggle to be about something from within the education system,” she said. “We want students to appreciate the workers.”

Most janitors and security workers at Israeli schools are hired by manpower companies who win the contracts to employ them from the education or internal security ministries, or the local municipality.

Forty-two schools are involved in the worker project, most of them in Jerusalem.

Activists say the students’ vigilance is beginning to pay off, noting that some of the manpower companies involved know they are being monitored and have become better at giving workers their due.

Maya Saprio-Tain, 17, who like Katzen is involved with Bema’aglei Tzedek at the Jerusalem Academy, said she thinks the effects of youth activism are long lasting.

“It’s hard to imagine a youth who fights for justice not continuing their work once they are an adult,” she said.

As for the workers, Katzin said she finds herself thinking about their status and rights even at unexpected moments, including during recent preparations for a schoolwide music festival.

All the teachers were invited to the festival for free, but not the janitors or security guards.

“Suddenly you start noticing these things,” she said, “and once the topic burns inside of you it keeps burning.”

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