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Workers and Their Allies, Then and Now: Introductory Essay

Lori Shaller and Judith Rosenbaum

Introductory Essay for Living the Legacy, Labor, Lesson 4

There is a deep commitment within Jewish tradition of helping those in need and of pursuing justice in the world. We need look no further than the commandment repeated thirty-six times in the Torah not to oppress the stranger or ill-treat the widow or orphan, and the emphasis in the instruction “Justice, justice, shall you pursue.” The Talmud discusses specific cases of need to teach us how to weigh different priorities when determining whom to help and how to help them. Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher, developed a hierarchy of values around giving aid to those in need. We can read, in the Books of Ezra and Nehemia, about some attempts by Babylonian Jewry to help the Jews in Palestine after the Exile. After the dispersion of the Jews following the fall of the second temple in 70 CE until the present day, wealthier Jewish communities would come to the aid of poor or oppressed Jewish communities elsewhere in the world. Indeed, even in the 20th century, we find many examples of Jews drawing on the Jewish tradition of helping poor and oppressed people by taking care of one another and trying to change unjust conditions through collective action in partnership with both Jews and non-Jews.

Judaism not only directs Jews’ responsibilities to one another, but, throughout the generations, Jewish communities have also cultivated various institutions and organizations that support the needy or oppressed. In the American immigrant context, newly-arrived Jews often sought assistance—formal and informal—from their own countrymen through landsmanschaften, which were mutual aid societies (or clubs) of people from the town or region from which they had come. In fact, similar locally-based clubs had often existed in Europe, and many of the immigrants simply re-formed their landsmanschaften upon arrival in the U.S. Members paid annual dues which gave them access to such services as burial in a landsman (literally “countryman”) cemetery, aid if they became unemployed, help finding work, housing, and foods familiar from the old country, and social events.

Labor unions also served as important support networks for working immigrants. In addition to their overt purpose of organizing workers to bargain collectively for better pay and working conditions, unions lobbied the government for regulations such as minimum wages, maximum hours, standardized pay scales, and safety laws. Labor unions also created a sense of community and provided services for workers. During strikes, they supplied food, goods, and some wages to striking workers, as well as furnished central meeting areas where workers could gather. They provided ongoing enrichment for workers—night classes for those seeking education, social events, subsidized camps for vacation time, and cultural activities like choruses, theater troupes, and dances.

New immigrants also received support from more established Jews. In the 19th century, the Hebrew Emigrant (later changed to Immigrant) Aid Society (HIAS) was created with funding by Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a wealthy German Jew who eventually lived in Britain. Concerned with the plight of the Jews of Russia, Baron de Hirsch created various different pathways for Russian Jews to come to the United States. (See Lesson 6 for information about the farming settlements de Hirsch funded in the U.S.) HIAS, which is still in existence, continued throughout the 20th and into the 21st century to help Jews (and others) emigrate to the U.S. from other countries, beginning in their countries of origin and supporting them as they prepared to emigrate, during their journey, and through the process of settling into their new home.

The rise of Progressivism and an emphasis on social reform in the late 19th century spawned many organizations concerned with the needs of the growing immigrant urban poor. Some organizations, such as the National Council of Jewish Women, focused on the needs of new immigrants, especially women, who sometimes immigrated alone and faced particular concerns and dangers as single women. NCJW helped them find legitimate jobs (to keep them from prostitution) and housing, get an education and vocational training, and learn about American cultural practices. While NCJW and similar Jewish social service organizations operated out of genuine concern for Jewish immigrants and a sense of responsibility for fellow Jews, some were also motivated by a degree of embarrassment at the poverty and perceived “backwardness” of these newer Jewish arrivals and wanted to make sure that recent immigrants were quickly and smoothly acculturated so that they would not attract attention and give Jews a bad name.

Settlement houses were another type of institution that aided immigrant workers. In the late 19th and early 20th century, a growing number of young women who had earned the new professional social work degree sought an outlet for their skills. They developed the settlement house model to address the needs of the poor, urban, immigrant population and to meet their own needs for community and meaningful work, as they lived and worked in the neighborhoods that they served. The first settlement house, Hull House, was founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in Chicago in 1889. Their mission was to provide services to new immigrants and help them navigate and assimilate into American society. Lillian Wald, a Jewish woman with a degree in nursing, founded the Nurses’ Settlement (later called the Henry Street Settlement House) in New York’s Lower East Side to provide health care to poor immigrants. She expanded the work done there to include educational and cultural programs similar to those offered at Hull House. Settlement houses provided vocational training, English classes, lessons in hygiene, nutrition, and American customs (such as what foods were “American” and how to cook them), as well as playgrounds and afterschool activities for children. The settlement houses also provided cultural experiences, such as concerts, dances, and theater performances. While some Jewish immigrants were extremely grateful for the services offered at settlement houses, others found some of the social workers patronizing and felt that American customs were being pushed on them and their own customs disrespected.

Working women also found allies in the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), an organization founded in 1903 by middle- and upper-class women interested in helping working-class women improve their lives. The WTUL hired the young but bold Jewish immigrant Rose Schneiderman to organize women workers. During strikes, members of the WTUL also joined the girls and women on picket lines, since the police and hired thugs were less likely to beat up a well-dressed woman. Their presence—and the media attention it drew—helped protect the working class women from violence.

Social workers, nurses, and activists involved in day-to-day direct efforts to help poor urban workers and immigrants were also instrumental in shaping government policies, from reforming labor laws to regulate work hours and require inspection of workplaces, to creating subsidies to provide aid for mothers to buy milk for their children. These new government policies and departments were often modeled after the institutions and programs women had created. Advocating for sanitation and recreation, access to birth control, education, and the right to vote, these women served as powerful allies of the workers, fighting for their health, welfare, and dignity. In the days before government regulations and safety nets like welfare, workmen’s compensation, food stamps, and the Department of Labor, these cross-class alliances played an important role in the lives of workers.

Today, though most Jews are no longer working class, many continue to serve as allies of oppressed workers through Jewish, secular, and inter-faith organizations. Rabbis for Human Rights—North America (RHR-NA) (http://rhrna.org/), Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) (http://www.iwj.org/), and Jews for Racial Justice and Equality (JFREJ) (http://www.jfrej.org/), among others, operate in solidarity with workers’ campaigns to change oppressive systems and institutions. For example, RHR-NA’s Campaign to End Slavery and Human Trafficking invites supporters to sign on to support the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). These tomato crop pickers are often brought into the country illegally and then enslaved in the work, unable to leave their jobs. The workers have founded an organization to fight for their right to be paid wages and to have the freedom to leave their jobs. RHR-NA helps advance the CIW by educating consumers to boycott tomatoes from stores that continue to carry produce distributed by companies that oppress their workers.

Similarly, IWJ lets supporters know about opportunities to advocate and lobby, as well as to engage in direct action alongside oppressed workers. Much of IWJ’s and RHR-NA’s work lies in educating people who do not experience oppressive labor practices directly and who often benefit from the work that takes place under oppressive conditions. Supporters of these organizations stand in solidarity with workers on the picket line, protesting unfair layoffs, cuts in benefits, and anti-unionization policies. As allies, they disseminate information and develop leaders within middle- and upper-class communities to support fairer labor practices.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Workers and Their Allies, Then and Now: Introductory Essay." (Viewed on September 22, 2014) <http://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/workers-and-their-allies-then-and-now-introductory-essay>.

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