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Raising the Minimum Wage Raises Up Us All

Marching in 97 degree heat on the blacktop of the Selma Highway was not easy.  But, I only had to do it for a day.  As I marched under the blazing August Alabama sun, I thought about centuries of people living in poverty who have worked all day, all summer, in that heat—in cotton fields, in factories, on roads, on roofs.

Ta-Nehisi Coates eloquently describes in his recent book, Between the World and Me, how racial injustice has physical effects on people’s bodies.  White Americans perpetrated the very abuse he describes on the bodies of those who walked the same highway fifty years ago.  That abuse is becoming more visible as we open our eyes to the wounds of racial injustice today.  And we are also finally starting to see the insidious physical abuse of poverty. Working in the heat is draining, but when you are unable to afford nutritious food, your sleep is shortened by multiple jobs and family responsibilities and illness often goes untreated because you cannot afford an unpaid sick day, poverty starts to destroy your body.

And then it can attack your spirit.  As Cornell William Brooks, President and CEO of the NAACP said to us on the steps of the Alabama Capitol building in Montgomery, we need a living wage because “we understand that jobs are not about dollars only but about dollars and dignity.”  Working full time should allow every American to live a life of dignity.  But it doesn’t.

The current federal minimum wage has not kept up with inflation, and at the current amount of $7.25/hour, an employee who is working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year earns only $15,080, which is not enough to lift a family of two out of poverty.  This has caused the number of full-time workers living in poverty to double since the late 1970s.

It does not need to be this way. A bill currently under consideration in Congress, the Raise the Wage Act (S. 1150/H.R. 1250), would bring the federal minimum wage to $12/hour by 2020 in a series of gradual increases. The National Employment Law Project reports that the increase would bring dignity and new economic security to millions of our fellow citizens:

  • 35 million workers (more than one in four);
  • 30 percent of wage-earning women (19.6 million women);
  • 35 percent of African American workers; and
  • 38 percent of Hispanic workers.

The Jewish obligation to treat workers fairly appears over and over in the Torah.  As does the need to see and respond to poverty in our midst. In this week’s parsha, Ki Teitzei, we read, “…You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the Eternal against you and you will incur guilt.” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15)  When fellow Americans, our “kin,” are working full-time and still unable to care for their bodies, their spirits, and those of their family, we must act.   That is the responsibility we must assume when we have our day in the sun.

Take action and urge your Members of Congress to support the Raise the Wage Act.

Learn more about the RAC’s work on economic justice and racial justice.

Blog by: Rabbi Ariana Silverman 

This blog was originally posted on the RAC’s blog.


CCAR on the Road Ethics Israel

Israel: Reaffirming Hope

This past January I had the privilege of serving as the co-chair, along with Arnie Gluck, of the CCAR’s trip to Israel.  One of the foci of the trip was social justice in Israel, and as the trip approached, I grew increasingly concerned that I was about to spend a week hearing about everything that is going wrong in a land I love.  I am delighted that the feeling with which I returned was hope.  And last week, the CCAR Convention’s panel on Israel reaffirmed that hope.   While Israel’s challenges are profound, many of the people in Israel who are working to address them, including our colleagues, are deeply inspiring.

MK Ruth Calderon
MK Ruth Calderon

One of the biggest problems in Israel is the treatment of women.  But panelist David Siegel, who serves as the Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles (serving all of Southwestern USA), delivered a message of careful optimism.  He referred to one of my role models, Dr. Ruth Calderon, whose introductory speech in the Knesset has now been viewed on YouTube almost 225,000 times. If you have not yet watched it, drop everything, and do so now (there are subtitles).

MK Ruth Calderon’s speech demonstrated the power of so many things that I hold dear: Jewish teaching, progressive Judaism, strong female leaders, the ability of words to touch lives.  Her speech was a potent reminder that sometimes strength lies not in physical force, but in being a great teacher.  And that gives me hope.

The international attention to her speech has been analyzed along with the response to the arrests of participants in Women of the Wall (WOW), signaling that there is not only an increased awareness of women’s issues in Israel, but that there is enough momentum for us to engage in a discussion of both values and tactics. Panelist Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, our incoming National Director of Recruitment and Admissions and President’s Scholar at HUC, is a staunch supporter of WOW, and pointed out how their struggle has become a case study in some of the most salient questions facing Israel, including the role of women, the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Judaism, and the relevance of diaspora Jewry.  I am not so naïve as to think that these issues will be quickly and easily resolved, but as women in Israel are standing up in the Knesset and at the Kotel, Jews around the world are paying attention.

It is quite possible that, as Rabbi Gilad Kariv (IMPJ’s Executive Director) suggested at the panel, the increased attention to WOW, which has been active for 25 years, is partly due to

Women of the Wall
Women of the Wall

Jerusalem’s illegally segregated buses.  There is a lot that must be done to combat gender segregation in Israel, but I am encouraged by the work of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), which won the supreme court battle to make segregation on public buses illegal, and has sent hundreds of “Freedom Riders” (including our CCAR group in January) to monitor whether the anti-harassment and anti-segregation laws are being upheld.

Adding to the influence of these politicians, activists, and advocates, are Israeli Reform rabbis serving in congregations, including Rabbi Maya Leibowitz of Kehilat Mevasseret Zion.  She said at the panel that these rabbis “are change agents for the soul of the country.”  As they help their congregants reclaim a Jewish spiritual life, they are also helping them to reclaim a message about social justice that is deeply rooted in our tradition.

Before closing the panel, Rabbi Gluck solicited the panelists’ requests to American Reform Rabbis.  These included:

  • In messaging on Israel, tough love is good, but it can’t always be tough–when we criticize Israel, we also need to say what we’re proud of
  • Engage all levels of government
  • Bring Israel to the pulpit
  • Teach our communities about not just the start-up nation, but the “bottom up״ nation
  • Strengthen the commitment of Reform Jews to Israel, particularly by arranging home hospitality when we bring congregants to Israel
  • Remember that WZO elections are vital in Israel and encourage our congregants to register to vote
  • Send our young adults on Birthright trips
  • Join WOW at the Kotel for Rosh Chodesh
  • Don’t stop asking where the check is for Rabbi Miri Gold, whose historic victory in June 2012 entitled her to government funding for her work that she has not yet received
  • Continue to support Israeli institutions that are doing great work, and invest in the Movement.

David Siegel, Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Gilad Kariv, and Maya Leibowitz each, in their own way, provided sophisticated analysis of Israel’s challenges, but also provided hope, and the inspiration to act on it.

 Rabbi Ariana Silverman serves Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield, MI.