Workers and Their Allies, Then and Now
Through the history of mutual aid societies, unions, and settlement houses, as well as contemporary organizations working for labor rights, consider the ways Jews have supported one another and also worked in solidarity with others to repair the world.
- When we succeed in helping ourselves out of oppressive conditions, we are often motivated to work in solidarity with others for justice.
- Methods for doing social justice expand as Jews identify with other oppressed groups.
- With whom do you feel solidarity?
- To whom would you turn for help?
- What were different models for affiliation in the American Jewish immigrant community and what purposes did they serve?
- How are Jewish individuals and organizations allying with oppressed workers today to improve working conditions?
- a sheet of 8 ½ x 14” paper per student
- pens and pencils for Part I of the lesson
- copies of the document study sources for each student
- copies of the brochure project directions for each student (optional)
- 8 ½ x 11” and 8 ½ x 14 white and colored paper
- markers for Part III of the lesson
Notes to Teacher
The goal of this lesson is to help students to understand how the Jewish textual and historical traditions encourage Jews to take action against injustice. Students will also explore the various models Jewish tradition provides for helping one another as well as for working in solidarity with those who are impoverished or oppressed. Part I invites students to think about whom they themselves would consider helping in various different circumstances. Part II introduces students to the ways in which Jews worked on Jews’ behalf in the early twentieth century and to traditional Jewish texts that support Jewish social action. In Part II, students will also see some of the different ways in which Jews have understood mutual aid and social action work over time. Part II engages students in research on contemporary Jewish and other organizations working as allies to those in economic, physical and psychological/emotional need, so that the students can discover avenues for their own social action pursuits.
The following biographies can be used in connection to this lesson:
Workers and Their Allies, Then and Now: Introductory Essay
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. T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights (http://truah.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, T'ruah’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. T'ruah 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 T'ruah’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.
Defining Spheres of Support
Give each student a blank sheet of 8 ½ by 14’’ paper and a writing implement. Begin by encouraging students to think about their lives and the privileges they have:Think about your daily life. What kind of house do you live in? How do you get from place to place? What kind of food to you eat? What does your family do for entertainment or for fun? Many of us live within our means and have our basic needs met. We also have the privilege of buying new clothes, going out to the movies, or eating out at restaurants. Think about your family specifically and what privileges and opportunities you have. (Vary how you say this depending on the socio-economic realities of the students you teach.) Then ask students: In such circumstances, for whom do you feel responsible?
Explain that they should draw a small circle in the center of the left third of their paper with their name in it to signify themselves. (See an example of this project) Now explain:
- Think of all of the people you are connected to or whom you know. Who would you help if they were experiencing grave needs for food, clothing, shelter, or health care? What if the they were in danger of life-threatening oppression?
- Now, draw several circles around the circle with your name. Each of these indicates a different level of responsibility you feel to help people in this situation. In the circle closest to your name, list the names of individuals or groups you feel most responsible for, perhaps “my family,” “my best friend Josh,” or “my dog.”
- Place the names of people or groups you feel connected to, but less responsible for, in the next circle, and so on.
- Continue this list, moving outwards until you are listing people you feel almost no responsibility to help on the outside. This may include people you don’t know or even people you think of as your enemies.
- You should use as many additional, concentric circles as you need need to show the degrees of responsibility you would feel for various people in need.
Be sure to explain that There are no right or wrong answers here, no correct number of circles or correct groups of people who belong in any of the circles. This is an opportunity for you to think about whom you might feel responsible for given the current circumstance of your life. Give students time to make their drawings. Wait until you’ve gone through all three drawings the students will make in the exercise before discussing the students’ work.
Now share this scenario with the students: If a natural disaster, such as a tornado or hurricane, were to occur in your geographic area and you managed to stay safe while it was happening, who would you try to help after the danger had passed? Draw a circle with your name in it in the center section of your paper and repeat what you did before, this time keeping in mind the situation of a natural disaster in your community. You may find that some groups change and that your circles narrow or broaden. That is okay, this is just an exercise.
Continue to the last scenario (one script is given here, but please be sensitive to your students’ actual economic circumstances and vary what you say accordingly) by saying: Now draw a small circle in the center of the right third of your paper and put your name in it. Imagine that you are living in hard economic times similar to the Depression of the 1930s, when one quarter to one third of the American working population was out of work. There is no money for school supplies or for new clothes for school this year. Your family has had to stop going out for dinner, to the movies, and doing other entertaining things. You must share your computer with siblings and parents, and there’s no money for new video games, etc. Yet your family isn’t experiencing the worst of it. Also imagine that you know people who have to go to soup kitchens for dinner and have to get their groceries at food pantries. One of your friends has even dropped out of school to help their family by working full time. Keeping this in mind, add circles around your name to illustrate those whom you’d try to help if you were in this situation.
Ask students to share their diagrams in pairs. Direct the students to notice how their pictures changed or didn’t change depending on the scenario. When you come back together as a group, ask students to share a similarity and a difference they noticed between their own and their partner’s diagrams. You can ask questions such as:
- Did anyone put people you didn’t know closest to yourself, with family members further out?
- Did the number of circles and groups of people you’d help increase, decrease, or stay about the same with each scenario?
- Why do you think some people might try and help others more when you’re in the same situation (e.g. the first scenario about a natural disaster) than when you’re doing better (e.g. what they showed in the first drawing)?
It’s important not to judge what students say and to encourage students to understand choices that may be different from their own. Ask neutral questions that will help students explain their decision making process and facilitate an open discussion between members of the group.
Give each student a copy of the document study to discuss in hevruta groups of two. After reviewing the documents, direct students in a discussion about the “spheres of support” they noticed were discussed in each of the documents.
Ask students to muse about whether or not they could make rules about when their own spheres of support might expand or contract. Ask:
Encourage students to brainstorm a list of the kinds of support they might offer. Their lists should include a range, from direct aid and financial charity to forming interest groups that work to change the behaviors of oppressors, encouraging consumer boycotts, and lobbying the government to investigate illegal labor practices, for example. See the introductory essay for this lesson and essay for Lesson 8, as well, which discusses the Jews for Racial and Economic Justice Shalom Bayit campaign, in which Jewish women hiring domestic workers are learning to be allies by using fair labor practices.
- Could you make rules about when your “spheres of support” might expand or contract?
- Under what circumstances might your circles change to include or exclude more people?
- Did anyone’s circles stay the same no matter what happens?
What Would You Do?
Before moving into the research portion of this lesson, it may help to take social justice out of the abstract by asking students to consider what they would do in a hypothetical situation that they may encounter in real life.
Divide the students into groups of three and give each group one of the following hypothetical situations to consider. It is okay if multiple groups are discussing the same scenario.
Scenario 1: You discover that your favorite restaurant, or a restaurant you and your family visit often, is not paying its employees fairly. As a result, some of the waiters and cooks have to work two or even three jobs in order to pay rent and buy food for their families.
Scenario 2: A friend shares an article with you about the company that produces your favorite brand of jeans. You find out that the factory where your clothes are made has been dumping toxic chemicals into the neighborhood nearby. People have been reporting finding dead wildlife and several people have been hospitalized after coming in contact with the waste.
Scenario 3: After your class, you find out that the janitor at your synagogue/school is very sick. Unfortunately, the janitor doesn't have health insurance and treatment for the illness costs thousands of dollars.
After reading the scenario, each group should discuss:
- What would you do?
- Why might it be hard for you to help? What difficulties might you encounter?
- Why might some people choose not to help?
A handout with the scenarios and discussion questions can be found in the "Handouts" section.
After each group has read through their scenario and had a few minutes to discuss the questions, have the students share their scenarios and responses with the group. At this point in the conversation, have your students highlight the last two questions as these are important pieces to consider when one is trying to make a change in the community.
Get Involved! Learning About Contemporary Campaigns of Jews and Allies Working for Social Change
Students will design a brochure, reproduce the brochure so that everyone in the class will have one of each brochure produced, and present their organization in a Volunteer Day Exposition.
A sample list of organizations that do immediate aid, human rights, leadership training, labor and consumer advocacy work, and education is given below. Teachers are encouraged to determine whether or not to include organizations that are not specifically Jewish and to add organizations with which the schools or synagogues they are working in are involved. Teachers might also include student-generated ideas for organizations the students may have done service work for or support already or with which the students already know they would like to get involved.
Directions to students:
- Choose an organization that works to help people in economic, political, or social need and research it on the internet. A sample list of organizations is given below, and your teacher may add local organizations, as well as organizations that you or some of your classmates already know something about to the list. It may be that your school or synagogue already has literature on some of these kinds of organizations, and you can use that literature as well.
- After finding the organization on the internet, go to the “about us” button and read the mission statement and about the work the organization says it does. Be sure also to look at the places on the website that describe actual, ongoing projects in which the organization is involved.
- Answer the following questions for your organization:
- How does this organization work to help people? Does the organization advocate for people, for example, by lobbying for legislation or do direct action with people in need? In other words, what is its approach to making change in the world? Do they raise and dispense money, or do they do direct work in the field, as well? Do they educate and raise awareness on the topic?
- Does the organization work locally, nationally, or internationally? Does that depend on what they’re doing for people?
- Who does the organization serve? What are their “spheres of support” – which communities do they work with, and who don’t they serve?
- Do paid staffers or volunteers do the work? Is it a combination?
- In what ways is the organization eliciting Jews as allies for social change?
- Get a copy of the organization’s logo; notice the colors it uses in its literature, logo and on its website; get information that potential volunteers would need if they wanted to get involved.
- Design your own brochure for the organization. Make it appealing, something that would catch a person’s eye if they saw it sitting on a table with lots of other similar kinds of literature. But also make sure it uses the organization’s actual logo and colors. It could be a simple 4-sided brochure with a fold down the middle; it could have two folds, for a total of six columns front and back, etc.
- Choose information to put in the brochure so that you are using every space well to convey your organization’s great work. When someone picks up the brochure, they should have a clear sense of:
- The name of the organization
- What the organization does
- How the organization does what it does, eg. legislative advocacy, direct action, education, etc. What is its approach to change?
- Where it operates, eg. locally, nationally, internationally, etc.
- Who it works with – the core constituency group with which it is allying?
- How to get in touch to help the organization do its work
- How it’s unique
- Why a Jewish person would want to be involved with this organization, if it’s not specifically a Jewish organization
- Make the brochure and then prepare a presentation that includes the information above. You may want to find a short success story to tell—the organization website very likely has such stories—that conveys all the information above in a more moving way than just reading what’s on your brochure.
Teachers can use the following questions to have students discuss the brochures when they are ready to present:
- What are some similarities between the different organizations?
- Which organizations are primarily fund raisers and money dispersal organizations? Which do direct action? Which are advocacy organizations? Which are education organizations? What are the different approaches to making social change that are represented by these brochures?
- Which organizations provide opportunities or volunteers to work directly with people in need? What organizations do you need professional credentials to work for? What are the different ways you can get involved to support these organizations?
- Which organizations are connected to specific Jewish historical experiences or specific Jewish values? What are these experiences/values?
- How would volunteers become partners for change with oppressed people?
Partial List of National Organizations for Students to Research
- American Jewish World Service, AJWS.org
- Rabbis for Human Rights – North America, RHR-NA.org
- Uri L’Tzedek, Utzedek.org
- Bnai Brith, bnaibrith.org
- Henry Street Settlement, Henrystreet.org
- National Council of Jewish Women, NCJW.org
- Fair Trade USA, fairtradeusa.org
- Avodah, Avodah.net
- Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism, RAC.org
- Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Jfrej.org
- Interfaith Worker Justice, iwj.org
- Jewish Organizing Institute and Network (JOIN), Jewishorganizing.org
Sources about Activists and Allies
20 You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
- Why do you think the stranger, widow and orphan are grouped together for special consideration for protection?
- Why do you think a reason is given for not wronging a stranger, while no reason is given for not ill treating the widow and orphan?
- Why do you think a punishment is given for wronging the widow and orphan, when it is rare that Torah cites specific punishments for wrong-doing?
- Looking at the phrasing in the last sentence (verses 22-26), what is the effect of comparing the widow and the orphan in general to the wife and child of the reader?
- What do these verses of Torah teach about our responsibility to others?
"A Challenge to Know and Tell"
From the schoolroom where I had been giving a lesson in bed-making, a little girl led me one drizzling March morning. She had told me of her sick mother, and gathering from her incoherent account that a child had been born, I caught up the paraphernalia of the bed-making lesson and carried it with me.
The child led me over broken roadways — there was no asphalt, although its use was well established in other parts of the city, — over dirty mattresses and heaps of refuse... between tall, reeking houses whose laden fire-escapes, useless for their appointed [intended] purpose, bulged with household goods of every description. The rain added to the dismal appearance of the streets and to the discomfort of the crowds which thronged them, intensifying the odors which assailed me from every side...
The child led me on through a tenement hallway... up into a rear tenement, by slimy steps whose accumulated dirt was augmented that day by the mud of the streets, and finally into the sickroom.
All the maladjustments of our social and economic relations seemed epitomized in this brief journey and what was found at the end of it. The family to which the child led me was neither criminal nor vicious. Although the husband was a cripple, one of those who stand on street corners exhibiting deformities to enlist compassion, and masking the begging of alms by a pretense at selling; although the family of seven shared their two rooms with boarders — who were literally boarders since a piece of timber was placed over the floor for them to sleep on — and although the sick woman lay on a wretched, unclean bed, soiled with a hemorrhage two days old, they were not degraded human beings, judged by any measure of moral values.
In fact, it was very plain that they were sensitive to their condition, and when at the end of my ministrations they kissed my hands (those who have undergone similar experiences will, I am sure, understand), it would have been some solace if by any conviction of the moral unworthiness of the family I could have defended myself as a part of a society which permitted such conditions to exist. Indeed, my subsequent acquaintance with them revealed the fact that, miserable as their state was, they were not without ideals for the family life and for society of which they were so unloved and unlovely a part.
That morning’s experience was a baptism of fire. Deserted were the laboratory and the academic work of the college. I never returned to them. On my way from the sickroom to my comfortable student quarters my mind was intent on my own responsibility. To my inexperience it seemed certain that conditions such as these were allowed because people did not know, and for me there was a challenge to know and to tell. When early morning found me still awake, my naïve conviction remained that, if people knew things — and “things” meant everything implied in the condition of this family — such horrors would cease to exist, and I rejoiced that I had had a training in the care of the sick that in itself would give me an organic relationship to the neighborhood in which this awakening had come...
Within a day or two a comrade from the training-school, Mary Brewster, agreed to share in the venture. We were to live in the neighborhood as nurses, identify with it socially, and, in brief, contribute to it our citizenship. That plan contained in embryo all the extended and diversified social interests of our settlement group to-day.
- What does Lillian Wald mean when she says the family are not “degraded human beings”? Why does she feel it is necessary to explain this?
- What does Wald see as her responsibility as an ally to this family?
- What does she mean by having an “organic relationship to the neighborhood” and identifying “with it socially”? How is this an important part of the project?
- Who are the two women in the image? What does this image and the way these women are depicted tell us about the Women’s Trade Union League?
- The seal lists three goals: the eight hour day, a living wage, and “to guard the home.” What does each of these refer to, and why were these so important to the Women’s Trade Union League? Why would a women’s organization in particular address these three issues?
Sarah Rozner's role in the 1915 strike
Sarah was a Jewish immigrant garment worker from Hungary living in Chicago, who became involved in labor activism in the 1910s. In this excerpt, she recalls her role providing support through the union during a 1915 strike.
“Not only did I got out on strike, but I became the chairlady of the strike hall. I was there day and night, taking care of a multitude of people: feeding them, sending them out on the picket line, and being on the picket line. Not only that. I had to distribute money, aid, help, whatever was necessary. I remember a canvas baster from my shop who earned, I think, five or six dollars a week. I made it my business to give him eight dollars in strike funds because I knew that he was scabbing-inclined.”
- What kind of aid did the union provide? Why?
- Why do you think Sarah would give more money to someone who was inclined to scab?
"What We Learned at Unity House."
A trade union is something more than an organization to fight for our rights, to increase our wages in the shop. It is also a great cooperative group which should spend together as well as earn together, which should enjoy together as well as suffer together, which should learn together as well as fight together… We learned at Unity House that there is a mysterious bond between working sisters just as there is between sisters in a family. And we only wished that devotion and that sisterhood would have more opportunity to lift its head in our shops.
- What kinds of activities does Newman think should ideally be part of a union?
- Why do you think Newman believes workers in a union together should engage in these activities beyond the workplace?
- What is going on in this picture? What do you see that makes you say that?
- In some cases, the owners of factories that exploited workers and treated laborers unfairly were Jewish. This was the case in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, as well as in the case of this particular cloak shop strike. How (if at all) does this change your understanding of Jewish involvement in labor struggles?
- One of the signs held by a striking worker contains a quote from the Jewish philanthropist Jacob Schiff. What does Schiff say about the responsibility of manufacturers (the heads of factories)? What do you think this meant to the strikers? Do you agree with Schiff?
- Do you think it is important to learn about Jewish injustice as well as Jewish support for social justice? Why or why not?
- Can you think of any other examples of times when some Jews were working against justice, rather than for it?
What Would You Do Scenario Handout
Rabbis for Human Rights-Campaign for Fair Food
Coalition of Immokalee Workers
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Workers and Their Allies, Then and Now." (Viewed on September 27, 2023) <https://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/labor/workers-and-their-allies-then-and-now>.