I could not have imagined that I would shortly be canvassing the streets of New York City as an Uri L’Tzedek fellow and talking to restaurant owners about the importance of ensuring that those who prepare and produce our kosher food are treated justly.
Uri L’Tzedek, the Orthodox organization promoting the Tav HaYosher, made me realize that I had the power to make a tremendous difference in the lives of these workers. Up to then, I had not given much thought about the working conditions in kosher establishments. Now, I knew that I would always think about it before eating at a kosher restaurant.
Before I began my fellowship with Uri L’Tzedek, I did not see myself as someone who had the fortitude to approach individuals whom I never met before and discuss sensitive issues such as these. But as I learned more and more about the injustices that restaurant workers face on a daily basis, I realized that I needed to overcome this personal obstacle in order to help correct this unfairness.
Specifically, those injustices are the abuses that workers in the restaurant industry are facing daily, including getting paid less than half of minimum wage, being denied overtime, and even being harassed and mistreated at work. Many of these workers are in the country illegally, making them even more vulnerable to abuses due to their fear of deportation if they file a complaint. Gaining exposure to this phenomenon made me realize that whatever one’s views on immigration policy might be, whether someone is documented or undocumented does not diminish their humanity; I have a responsibility to ensure that the food from which I receive benefit is not being produced in unjust conditions.
Indeed, it is these three standards — guaranteed minimum wage, overtime pay and a safe working environment — that are the basis of the Tav HaYosher. The concept was inspired by the Tav Chevrati, based in Israel, which has over 350 restaurants signed on and has achieved much success in correcting the injustices that workers face. Like the Tav Chevrati, the Tav HaYosher is a free program that certifies kosher restaurants in the United States for treating their workers justly according to basic legal standards.
Through my work with the Tav HaYosher as an Uri L’Tzedek fellow, I learned not only about the importance of social justice through a Torah perspective, but to actively actualize those Torah principles.
As I hit the streets around New York City and spoke with both Jewish consumers and restaurant owners about the importance of yashrut (uprightness), which calls for sanctification of our social relationships, in the kosher restaurant industry, I encountered all sorts of reactions, from unwavering support to heated skepticism. Those who supported the Tav inspired me to initiate the next conversation and strengthened my resolve. Yet even the skepticism made me realize that I needed to put more energy into articulating the need for the Tav HaYosher and the Torah values upon which it is based.
My fellowship experiences have caused me to think about so many unfair practices, which occur all over the world, simply when I eat a meal. While biting into a slice of pizza will not relieve the suffering of others, this mundane act has become a gentle reminder that there is more to eating food than just being satisfied. The Jewish concept of kedusha (holiness) charges us, not to avoid physical pleasures, but to utilize them in the service of God. Making a blessing on one’s food elevates the act of eating by helping one recognize that our sustenance comes from God. Thinking about those who are mistreated in the food industry can complement that recognition and instill meaning within this simple act.
At times the injustices can seem too overwhelming to correct when we have so much to deal with in our own daily lives. Yet it is why the simplest decisions that we make each day, such as where to purchase our kosher food, can indirectly contribute to righting these injustices. By supporting only establishments that provide basic rights for their workers, we can maintain a constant awareness of the impact of our actions in order to create a more just world based on the principle of yashrut. The more do so, the easier it becomes.
My Uri L’Tzedek was an eye-opening experience. It made me more aware of issues that I did not really focus on previously. May these experiences continue to motivate me to engage in Tikkun Olam and fulfill the Torah’s charge of Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof.
(Morris Breitbart is a sophomore at Princeton University.)