Brooklyn Boro

OPINION: Brooklyn demonstration shows need for solidarity among Jews and immigrants, rabbi says

April 23, 2023 Rabbi Mike Moscowitz
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Over the past several years, dozens of employees at the Best Super Clean demolition company in Brooklyn, New York have been advocating for fair wages and safe working conditions. The workers, most of whom are immigrants from Indigenous communities in Guatemala, do dangerous demolition work without enough tools or even gloves, all for a less-than-living wage. The workers have secured some incremental improvements through the campaign, such as convincing the company to provide basic protective equipment, but the company has also retaliated by firing five of the workers who spoke out and provoking division among the workers by raising the wages of workers who did not speak out.

Like other Rabbis in the local community, I felt called to speak up for these workers because of my Jewish values. Our biblical narrative, and current history in the diaspora, is heavily determined by the communities and individuals that were supportive and kind to us, and those which were not. 

Our own people’s history as “strangers” facing discrimination should equip us to understand the many struggles faced by immigrants today, so I was disappointed to find out that the Hasidic owners of Best Super Clean company dismissed the immigrant workers’ campaign as an anti-Semitic attack. 

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This is a dangerous misunderstanding. It’s time to remind Best Super Clean’s owners that we, as Jews, know what it means to be excluded and exploited, and we can never benefit from oppressing others as we have been. These workers’ demands deserve to be heard with compassion.

Not too long ago, many of us were strangers in New York ourselves. My grandfather came to this country from Warsaw, Poland, in 1929 when he was 10 years old. He delivered medications on his bicycle after school to help his large family make ends meet. At a time when many opportunities, including higher education pathways, were not open to Jewish students, my grandfather found a community at City College, where students were welcomed regardless of their race, religion or where they come from. It was this diverse community that helped him navigate the complexities of life in a tough new city as a young Jewish immigrant. This opportunity helped him provide a life of better opportunities for his children, including my father.

Demonstrators marching for worker organization. Photo courtesy of Laundry Workers Center.

Having benefited from the struggles of those who came before me, I recognize the need to give back and stand in solidarity with other communities struggling today. I’m proud of our peoples’ strong tradition of immigration and labor advocacy, and I believe this Passover is an opportunity to reflect on our origin of faith and better understand how we can work toward liberation and opportunity for all marginalized people. 

Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov, worker’s rights activist and educator, teaches that we dip the vegetable, karpas, into the salt water, to remind us of how Joseph’s brothers dipped his colorful garment into blood. It invites us to reflect on all of the tears that could have been spared had his family not dehumanized him as a means of elevating themselves. Joseph’s forced enslavement, and subsequent rise to power, is what brought the Israelites to Egypt to suffer and painfully learn the ongoing lesson that God, not our subjection of others, is the source of success.

The Hebrew word for this stage of the Seder, כרפס – karpas, is an anagram for “ס-פרך” and represents a particularly demoralizing category of work. It also alludes to the hope and optimism that faith provides in the worker’s struggle for equality. Matzah, the bread of affliction, shares the same numerical value with the word for “support” -סמיכה, and is represented by the “ס”, instructing us to internalize the holy truth that we never lose by supporting others.

The opposite is also true. Pharaoh loses everything because he simply can’t imagine the Israelites being entitled to the dignity of identities beyond that of “laborer.” When Moses tells Pharaoh “Let my people go…to celebrate God” (Exodus 5:1-5), Pharaoh denies the request and justifies the exploitation in order for the work to get done. He doesn’t see the Israelites as people, just tools for a job. 

As we reflect on the lessons of our shared history this Passover, let us not forget the struggle of the workers at Best Super Clean in Brooklyn. It’s time for these workers’ pleas for safer working conditions to be met with compassion. 

Rabbi Mike Moskowtiz. Photo courtesy of Berlin Rosen.

I plan to stand in solidarity with the workers on the picket line in Brooklyn, and I invite you to attend with me on Friday, April 14th. I’ll be calling on Best Super Clean to resume good-faith negotiations with workers, and seek a collaborative resolution to these workers’ hardships, before workers are forced to file a wage theft lawsuit to hold the company accountable. And if you can’t make it to the protest, you can send a letter to Best Super Clean to express your support for the workers and urge the management to pay workers fair wages.

These workers came to New York in search of a better life, and that’s a journey we can all relate to. When we dip our karpas in the salt water and reflect on the tears shed by those who are subjected to demoralizing treatment, I will reflect on these workers specifically. I want them to know that we support them with the same conviction we have for our own liberation. Together, we can end oppression and build a better future for those in our community.

Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is a Scholar-in-Residence for Trans and Queer Jewish Studies at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah.

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