Judith Sandman, 2013 Twersky Award Winner
Judith Sandman teaches at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, New Jersey and Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield, New Jersey. She also works as a book editor for Berman House publishing and is the author of Jewish and Me: Mitzvot. Earlier in her career, she served as an editorial assistant to Margaret K. McElderry at Scribner Publishing and to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis at Doubleday Publishing.
Sandman is the daughter of a history teacher and says, “My mother has always been an inspiration for me because of the way she makes history come alive for her students. I was lucky enough to experience this firsthand at a Hebrew day school so small that I had her for a teacher.”
Lesson Plan: What Will It Cost Me to Work for You?
Jews and the Labor Movement: Immigrant Life on the Lower East Side, the Strike of 1909, and Garment Workers in Peril Yesterday and Today
This lesson is designed for Jewish students in grades 6 through 8.
- Students will examine traditional Jewish texts to appreciate the Jewish approach to labor, employer/employee relations, and the respect with which we are expected to treat others.
- Learning about immigrant life on New York City’s Lower East Side at the turn of the twentieth century, students will imagine themselves living in tenements and working in garment factories.
- Students will read about life as garment workers and identify unfair labor practices.
- Studying the 1909 “Uprising of 20,000” and short profiles of Jewish labor leaders, students will draw picket signs and write speeches protesting unfair and unsafe labor conditions, “re-creating” the strike of 1909.
- Students will learn about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and read Rose Schneiderman's speech about the tragedy.
- Students will engage in a roundtable discussion about recent events in Pakistan and Bangladesh, including garment factory fires and a factory collapse. They will read an excerpt from Rabbi Jill Jacob’s “Living Wage Teshuvah” and draw up a list of fair practices for employers and employees. Based on their understanding of Jewish texts and Jewish history, they will explore appropriate personal and communal responses to unfair and unsafe working conditions in the United States and overseas.
- Copies of the traditional Jewish text study source sheet for each student
- Copies or online access to JWA's biographies of labor leaders from Living the Legacy
- Index cards
- Poster board
- Pens and markers
- Costumes including: long skirts, hats, white shirts
Introduction (5 minutes)
- In September 2012, a fire killed 300 workers at a textile factory in Karachi, Pakistan; employees were prevented from escaping by locked factory doors.
- In November 2012, more than 100 workers were killed when fire swept through a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
- And in New York City, 146 people were killed, many of them by jumping out of ninth-story windows, when fire swept through the clothing factory in which they worked.
Ask: What is the difference between the factory fires in South Asia in 2012 and the fire in New York City?
About a hundred years. The fire in New York took place at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company on Saturday, March 25, 1911.
Explain: Two years before the fire, in 1909, more than twenty thousand workers, mostly young Jewish women immigrants from Eastern Europe, staged an eleven-week strike for fair pay, fair hours, safe working conditions, and respect in the workplace. Although they did not achieve all of their demands, the strike made public the deplorable conditions under which so many people worked in the sweatshops and fortified the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
In the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire, the New York State Committee on Safety was established. The New York State Legislature charged the Factory Investigating Committee to study working conditions in factories, stores, and tenements, and draft legislation to limit the number of employees based on their ability to safely exit a building during a fire, to install automatic sprinkler systems, and to protect women and children in particular.
Part 1: Jewish Labor Texts Study (15 minutes)
Say: Think back to the time of the Torah. Were there factories back then? And yet, the Torah has a great deal to say about workers. Why? What? Let’s examine some biblical texts.
Activity: Print source sheets with Tanakh texts related to labor and give one to each student. Ask students to choose one or two of the texts that are particularly meaningful to them.
Discuss: Why did you choose this text? What is the Tanakh trying to teach us?
Part 2: Immigrant Life on the Lower East Side (15 minutes)
Say: Let’s examine life on New York’s Lower East Side for eastern European Jewish immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Why did Jews leave Europe?
- To seek greater economic opportunity
- To escape pogroms
- To escape restrictions on education, residence, occupation (many Jews had been displaced by industrialization)
Explain: Between 1840 and 1850 one-third of NY Jewish wage earners were peddlers. At first there was little ready-made clothing, so peddlers peddled secondhand clothing. Jewish New York suppliers supplied many of these peddlers.
As industrialization increased, clothing manufacturing in New York increased 600% between 1860 and 1880 (reasons include proximity to New England textile factories and the delivery of European textiles to the port of New York). Close to half of all immigrants sewed clothes in hundreds of small-scale sweatshops, in one of the country's most important industries.
What attracted factories to NYC?
- Cheap, plentiful labor
- Growing consumer and retail market (stores), catalogs
- Since NY was a financial center, funds could be secured to grow businesses
- Garment industry was decentralized (piecework)
- Uniforms for Civil War
What did New York City offer immigrants?
- Jobs, including self-employment, a way to move up
- Place to live
- Food in abundance
- Free education
- Freedom of thought—diverse religious life
- Right to vote (men only)
Explain: Between 1880 and 1920 twenty-three million immigrants came to the United States. Between 1880 and 1924 two-and-a-half million Eastern European Jews came to the United States.
- 85% came to New York.
- 75% of them settled on the Lower East Side.
- Many came as family groups, increasing pressure to find jobs.
- Between 1908 and 1924, 33.3.% of all immigrants returned to their home countries. Only 5.2% of Jews returned to Eastern Europe.
- Between 1899 and 1914, women constituted 30% of all immigrant groups. Among Jewish immigrants, women made up 44%.
- Jewish children made up 25% of Jewish immigrants under 14 years of age. (Children represented 11% of other immigrant groups.)
- Between 1914 and 1915, 37% of working papers in NYC were issued to Jewish teenagers, fourteen years old and above.
What was life on the Lower East Side like?
Tenements replaced one family (subdivided) homes. Imagine living in a building five to six stories high of 25 units, with 3 to 12 people in each 325 sq. ft. apartment. Many families took in boarders. Some people had to sleep in shifts. There were usually two stores on the ground floor of the building. There were no side windows; interior rooms lacked direct light and air. In some buildings windows were even cut into walls of apartments next to hallways. In the backyard were faucets for water for laundry, cleaning, and cooking. There were also laundry lines and bathrooms in the backyards. Apartments had coal or gas stoves but no refrigerators, which meant daily shopping.
What would you do about bathing? Importance of Shabbat to family life: even if people had to work on Saturdays, Friday night was a special time. The need for kosher food meant not only Jewish companies but national companies received kosher certification.
Discuss: What is Clara Lemlich trying to convey about everyday life?
Activity: Write a letter to a friend or relative back in eastern Europe about the advantages and/or disadvantages of life on the Lower East Side. Add a sketch if you’d like. Would you encourage them to immigrate or discourage them from doing so?
Part 3: What Is It Like to Be a Garment Factory Worker? (15 minutes)
Activity: Read an excerpt from Pauline Newman’s unpublished memoir, describing the hardships of life as a garment worker.
Read an excerpt (pp. 1-15) from We Shall Not Be Moved: The Women’s Factory Strike of 1909 by Joan Dash (see bibliography).
As you read, ask students to keep a running list of unfair labor practices.
- Not being allowed to speak.
- Being fined for talking, joking, laughing, or singing.
- Losing half a day’s pay for being a few minutes late to work.
- Paying rent for chairs, lockers, sewing machines; paying for needles, thread, and machine oil.
- Crowded working conditions.
- Low pay.
- No overtime.
- Having to report to work even when there was no paid work available.
- Dirty bathrooms.
- Not enough time to go to bathroom.
- Little opportunity for women to advance.
- Women earning half as much as men for the same work.
- Getting beaten up for trying to unionize.
- Being cheated out of pay with no way to protest.
- Clocks speeded up at lunchtime to shorten lunch hour. Clocks covered at end of day to lengthen work day.
- Harassment of women workers by men.
Part 4: “Uprising of 20,000”: The Strike of 1909 (30-45 minutes)
In November 1909 more than twenty thousand garment workers, two-thirds of them young Jewish women, participated in the largest strike that had ever taken place in the United States.
Discuss: What were some of the issues we had previously discussed that workers were protesting against? The strike lasted for eleven weeks, and though the workers did not achieve many of their goals, they did make some progress on the issues of pay and worker safety. The strike brought to the public’s attention the terrible conditions under which these women worked, and the strike strengthened the struggling International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
Show students a photo of Clara Lemlich.
Ask: What do you think of when you see this photograph?
Explain: As a meeting to discuss the strike bogged down in speeches by labor leaders, Clara Lemlich, a twenty-three year old garment worker, galvanized the audience to action when she declared: “I am a working girl, one of those who are on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. What we are here to decide is whether we shall or shall not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared—now.” During the strike, Clara Lemlich was beaten up; she suffered six broken ribs and was arrested seventeen times. (To learn more, read about the Uprising of 20,000 in JWA's Encyclopedia.)
Activity: Distribute profiles of Jewish labor movement leaders: Samuel Gompers, Bessie Abramowitz Hillman, Sidney Hillman, Pauline Newman, Rose Pesotta, Rose Schneiderman, and Clara Lemlich Shavelson.
Ask students to pretend they are speaking during the 1909 strike in the voice of one of the people whose profile they’ve read or in the voice of a character they create. In one paragraph they should state what they are fighting for, what they would say to convince other workers to strike with them, or what they could say to convince the public to support them.
Each student should design a protest poster to carry at the rally. Students can work together to create a chant for the rally. Students can then hold a rally carrying their posters, chanting as they march, and making speeches.
Part 5: Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (15 minutes)
Explain: On Saturday, March 25, 1911, 146 workers, most of them young Jewish women immigrants, died when fire swept through the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City. The escape exits on the ninth floor were locked to prevent theft and to keep workers from leaving early. Fire truck ladders were not tall enough to reach workers; the fire escape bent in the heat of the fire and under the weight of all the women trying to escape. Many workers were killed leaping from the building.
Ask a student to read the speech that Rose Schneiderman delivered to protest the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (from JWA's Go & Learn Activity Guide on Labor Activism and Communal Responsibility).
Explain: As a result of the fire, the New York State Committee on Safety was established. Working conditions in factories, stores, and tenements, were studied and legislation was drafted to limit the number of employees a company could hire based on their ability to safely exit a building during a fire, to make the installation of automatic sprinkler systems mandatory, and to protect women and children.
Part 6: Conclusion: History Repeats Itself: Bangladeshi Garment Workers (20 minutes)
Explain: On Wednesday, April 24, 2013, more than 650 workers at a garment factory in Savar, Bangladesh, were killed when the factory collapsed. The day before the collapse, workers noticed big cracks in the wall. The four upper floors of the building, it would later be shown, had been added illegally, and the building’s foundation was substandard. When the cracks were discovered, the stores and bank on the lower floors of the building were closed immediately. But the owners of the garment factories on the upper floors ordered their employees to come to work on Wednesday. Among the stores for which those factories were making clothes were Walmart and Benetton.
Discuss the following:
- Who is to blame for the conditions in these factories?
- If US companies or stores subcontract the work, does that exonerate them?
- Do US workers have to worry about building collapses and fires like overseas workers? How about illegal immigrant workers in the United States?
- How do unions in the United States today compare to unions a century ago?
Explain: We studied texts from the Torah about how to treat workers. But rabbis and Jewish leaders today are concerned with the same subject. Using traditional Jewish texts as a starting point, they are formulating new suggestions and rulings about the obligations of Jewish employers and employees. The Conservative movement passed a teshuvah—a written legal text—by Rabbi Jill Jacobs requiring Jewish employers to treat workers with dignity and respect, to pay them fairly, to provide safe working conditions, and so on.
Activity: Read an Excerpt from the Living Wage Teshuvah” by Rabbi Jill Jacobs.
To conclude your class' study of Jews and the Labor Movement, ask students to formulate five rules for employers and five rules for employees, sharing their answers and coming up with a comprehensive list. Then, in a roundtable discussion, encourage students to brainstorm ways they can help improve conditions for workers today.
Ideas might include:
- E-mailing clothing manufacturers to find out where their clothing is made.
- Questioning retailers about safeguards they have in place to ensure safe working conditions for overseas factory workers.
- Organizing a petition to improve factory conditions.
- Organizing a protest against manufacturers or retailers who do not inspect the factories in which their goods are made.
- Urging manufacturers and retailers to pay employees a living wage.
- Urging manufacturers to provide food, housing, and schooling for workers and their children.
- Refusing to buy clothing from companies who do not care about their workers.
- Discouraging their friends from buying clothing from companies that do not protect their workers.
- Studying the history of unions in the United States and recent legislation about unions.
- Staging a debate about whether unions are a positive or negative force in our country’s workforce today.
Dash, Joan. We Shall Not Be Moved: The Women’s Factory Strike of 1909. New York: Scholastic, 1996.
Hine, Lewis W. Women at Work: 153 Photographs by Lewis W. Hine. New York: Dover Publications, 1981.
Jacobs, Jill. There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition. Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010.
Jewish Women's Archive. “From Suffering to Action, From the Individual to the Collective.” (Viewed on May 6, 2013) http://jwa.org/.
Manik, Julfikar Ali, and Jim Yardley. “
Polland, Annie, and Daniel Soyer. Emerging Metropolis: New York Jews in the Age of Immigration, 1840-1920. New York: New York University Press, 2012.
Rock, Howard B. Haven of Liberty: New York Jews in the New World, 1654-1865. New York: New York University Press, 2012.