Perelman Teachers Have the Right to Organize: Interview

Jill Jacobs6

Rabbi Jill Jacobs. Photo: T’ruah.

Starting September 1, the Perelman Jewish Day School has ceased to recognize its teachers union.

Following the Perelman board’s announcement, The Perelman Teacher-Alumni-Parent Partnership sponsored a presentation in Bryn Mawr, “Work & Workers in Jewish Law: A Community Teach-In,” by Rabbi Jill Jacobs.

Jacobs is the founding executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which mobilizes 1,800 rabbis and cantors and tens of thousands of American Jews to protect human rights in North America and Israel. The author of Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community and There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition, she is widely regarded as a leading voice on Jewish social justice.

The Philadelphia Jewish Voice caught up with Rabbi Jacobs for an interview soon after her presentation.

Q: Within what context would you place the controversy at Perelman?

JJ: Teachers unions have been taking quite a beating recently, blamed for “the problem” of public education, without a recognition that they are doing their best in a system where there are very few resources.

In addition, the Jewish community is moving away from its roots in the labor movement. While Jews were once a significant presence in unions, now very few are union members, and the memories of the Jewish role in establishing workers’ rights are fading.

Q: The Perelman Jewish Day School is part of the Conservative movement’s nationwide system of Solomon Schechter Schools. You advise the Conservative movement on Jewish legal issues and in fact authored the 2008 teshuvah (Jewish legal opinion), Work, Workers, and the Jewish Employer. How does it speak to the Perelman issue?

JJ: The right to organize is absolutely a human rights issue, as well as a Jewish issue. The force of halachah (Jewish law) forbids breaking unions, and in fact supports unionizing. As I wrote in the teshuvah, affiliates of the Conservative movement “may not interfere in any way with organizing drives,” and must pay workers a living wage.

Q: But you were writing about low-wage workers. Even though many of us may feel that teachers are underpaid, they could hardly be considered low-wage workers.

JJ: Generally speaking, those of us concerned about social justice, and specifically fair wages, focus on low-wage employees, those making minimum wages or even higher wages that do not meet the criteria of a “living wage.” Therefore the emphasis in the teshuvah was on those workers.

But the clear support for unions in teshuvot across the Jewish spectrum makes it abundantly clear that preserving workers’ dignity, including their ability to establish and maintain unions, is of paramount importance, and that goes for workers at any salary level.

Q: Even so, is that decision enforceable in any way? Is the Day School board not free to make whatever decision it wishes? After all, I am sure that the Perelman board had its reasons. There are always at least two sides to questions.

JJ: Indeed, Conservative teshuvot are not enforceable. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards is a judicial body that does not have an executive body attached to it. But because there was no written dissent in the teshuvah (the vote was 13 in favor, 1 opposed but without writing a dissent, and 3 abstentions), it is hard for Conservative rabbis to ignore it.

Q: I also recall that, while teshuvot generally support unions, some halachists have expressed concern over strikes, especially of Torah teachers.

JJ: It is crystal clear that Torah teachers are allowed to form a union, and that they should be treated with dignity and paid appropriately. There are, however, additional strictures regarding strikes by Torah teachers because of the fear of bitul torah (neglect of Torah study). That does not mean that Torah teachers can never strike, but that more conditions need to be met before they do.

In this case, however, there was no threat of strike. Even if it had come to that point, it would have been absolutely within the realm of halachah for the secular studies teachers to strike completely, and for the Torah teachers to set up a strike school somewhere else, just for limudei kodesh (holy studies).

Q: The fact is, I am not aware of any clear explanation of the board’s decision, though there have been statements implying the need to ensure quality education.

JJ: If it is an issue of teacher competence, there are other ways to deal with that than breaking a union.

Q: Do you have anything to add on this subject before we move on to a more general question?

JJ: Two things: First, that I did speak with Conservative leaders in Philadelphia, and I realized that one of the most difficult aspects of the controversy was that it pitted neighbor against neighbor, because teachers, board members, and parents all live in the same communities. Creating barriers within the community is one of the very unfortunate byproducts of the Perelman board’s decision.

Second, this whole issue leads me to wonder, What does it mean to have a Jewish day school if it doesn’t reflect [in its operations] the values we are trying to teach our kids?

I know that it has been claimed that my position is “the opinion of only one person,” but that is not true. What I summarized in the teshuvah is absolutely consistent with the force of Jewish law, and it is the only position that the Conservative movement has taken on unions. Breaking the union is definitely against halachah and the decision of the Law Committee.

Q: Is there any halachic ruling you can cite that would suggest that, because the Perelman Jewish Day School gets money from the Federation, which is answerable to its donors, that the school has an obligation to fully explain its decision?

JJ: While I cannot cite such a ruling right now, it does seem to me that donors have a right to raise such a question.

Q: Let us spend just a moment on T’ruah: What does your work involve?

JJ: T’ruah was founded as Rabbis for Human Rights — North America in 2002. We changed our name to T’ruah (the name for one of the Torah blasts) in 2013, but our work has not changed at all.

We work on human rights issues both in Israel and the occupied territories, and here in North America.

Here we are best known for our partnership with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to create fair working conditions in the tomato fields. Over the past three years, we have brought more than 50 rabbis to the Florida tomato fields, and these rabbis have gone home to engage their community in demanding that major corporations sign a “Fair Food Agreement.” We had a major victory this year when Walmart signed on.

In Israel, we advocate for an end to the occupation, and for the protection of human rights of all people. My favorite part of our work there is our program for American rabbinical students spending the year studying in Jerusalem. We take them places in Israel they never otherwise would go. They meet Palestinians, African Asylum Seekers, Israeli human rights activists, and more, and learn how to bring these perspectives on Israel into their rabbinate.


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