The Story of Jewish Sweatshops

I was just there again last week. Only it’s not called Henry’s anymore, it’s
called Sprouts. It looks like any other grocery store from the outside. The
same large backlit sign you can see from the road. Green letters on a white
background. The store is up on a hill with a large plateau that spreads out
across the parking lot, rubbled blacktop that has been renewed any number
of times only to crack and split the way any hard surface does with age.

Walking in the front door the same smell welcomed me that I remember
from how ever many years ago. The air entering my memory, like a window
opened, a room now filled with light. I worked here in High School. I had
the classic bagger job, egged on by my friends who already had jobs placing
delicate groceries in volatile bags with speed only a nimble teenager can
muster. I remember showing up in my white button down shirt, answering
a few standard questions and then getting entered into the payroll. My first
day at work was exhilarating, so many new things to learn and do. As a
bonus they would send the baggers out in shifts to collect the shopping
carts in the parking lot. An hour of pure bliss every other day, where I
could wander on my feet and in my mind to my heart’s delight. But after a
few days of the same after school activity my interest started to wane,

I only lasted in that job a few months. The job was fine, but I simply didn’t
think I was using my time wisely by doing it. I started tutoring and
teaching guitar lessons after that, but that had a much more manageable
schedule. In truth, I left the job because despite fair labor laws being in
place, despite their insistence on my union 15 minute breaks and lunch
hours, I found myself using my precious Shabbat time to catch up on things
from the week. Never school work or shifts, but any other work seemed to
creep into that space. I had lost my Shabbat.

I actually remember sitting with Craig Parks, my youth director who is
actually coming to perform here at IHC in a few weeks. We sat together late
one night and I told him that I just felt like I needed a break, I needed to
relax. If only there was some way to take a break. He looked at me and
said, “Scott you know this already, we have that, it’s called Shabbat!” It was
shortly after that that I left the job at Henry’s.

I remember so clearly though, the insistence that I take a break during my
allotted time. I remember thinking that it was strange that they would
insist that I take a break and only later learned about the power of the
unions and their insistence on these breaks, the history of fair labor
practice in the US.

This came to my mind this week as I looked over our Torah portion and
read the words: “When you acquire a Hebrew servant, the servant shall
serve for six years; in the seventh year the servant shall go free, without
payment.” Right here in our textual tradition we have the injunction to
treat workers with kindness and fairness. Everyone needs a break from
their work. As Jews we insist on taking the seventh day of our week off
from work, and even the seventh year.

We live in a society that places a high premium on work and so it seems
peculiar that any employer would not only permit, but insist on the rest of
her workers. It would seem that the more work, the better, but as in so
many places in our vibrant tradition our texts teach us to empathise with
one another, and so we are meant to help our workers rest.

This tradition has continued throughout our Jewish history. Our rabbis
teach us in the Talmud that the very first question we will be asked by God
at the end of our life is whether or not we conducted our business fairly ,
because we know that conduct our business fairly is to construct our world
in a positive way.

In more recent history, our people made significant change in the United
States though our strong involvement in the labor movement. The term
sweatshop, which now haunts our overseas factories, was coined here in
America where newly immigrated Jews at the turn of the century, spent all
day and all night in makeshift factories housed in tiny apartments. The
heat in these tight spaces was unbearable, and so the workers used to say
that they worked in sweatshops. These tiny workshops persisted in the US
until labor conditions worsened and finally reached the public eye when a
fire caught in a factory on the Lower East Side of New York. The doors to
the factory had been locked in order to keep the workers from taking
unauthorized breaks while they were on the clock and the fire senselessly
claimed the lives of 146 people, trapped in their place of employment. This
fire took place in the now infamous Triangle Shirtwaist factory. As a result,
the workers took to the streets, inspired by the ideals of socialism that
brought about a revolution in the East, the people of the United States
seeked reform and rights for laborers.

And I am proud to say that many of these reformers were Jewish women.
Jews who had heard from our same document today that there is a right of
every person to have a workplace that tolerates even their basic needs.
“When you acquire a Hebrew servant, the servant shall serve for six years;
in the seventh year the servant shall go free, without payment.” We are the
beneficiaries of these brave women, who fought for our ability to live our
lives for more than servitude, inspired by the understanding of our

The labor movement in the United States organized, and brought about
lunch breaks, pension rights and even the weekend. Which is on not only
Sunday, but also Saturday, in order to encompass both the Christian and
Jewish Sabbaths.

This is not to say that we are done. Sadly, as we have carefully removed
sweatshops from the mainstream, putting together laws and positioning
unions to advocate for the wellbeing of our workforce, sweatshops remain
alive, albeit under the radar.

I remember riding bikes through Brooklyn on a late afternoon. The
weather had just warmed up to the point where you could put on a thick
sweater and bear the breeze on your ears and fingers as you whipped past
the pedestrian sidewalks. Dori and I rode out to a park down in
Sheepshead Bay and on our way passed by a series of giant industrial
buildings. One of the half a dozen buildings had a giant sliding door about
a quarter of the way open and as we went whizzing by on our bikes I caught
a scene inside that I have only seen in photos and movies. The traditional
rows of women, sitting under fluorescent lights and huddled over sewing
machines. The ride was too fast to see what they were making but I
imagine it was clothing. Later, as the sun was setting we returned on the
same route but this time the door was shut.

This was just one example of the thousands of sweatshops that persist at
home and abroad. A somber reminder of the much work we still have to do
in this world. I know that it is extremely difficult, now more than ever, to
find clothing and products that are made with fair labor. I will not stand
here and wax pious, but I do want to encourage all of us, myself included, to
be more mindful of these humble workers that make our wares. There are
sweatshop­free options for some clothing, albeit few. A simple Google
search can reveal our favorite brands’ heroic or shameful practices. I hope
we can patronize the makers that align without labor values.

We truly have much to be proud of in our tradition. Ours is one that has
been fighting for the rights of those who are in need for thousands of years,
our Torah, a text that dates from at least 2500 years ago. In which we tell
the story of how we, all of us, were at one time slaves, people without rights
of our own, who eventually made our way out of Egypt, out of slavery. We
retell this story year after year. Many scholars say that this is the central
narrative of our people, and the holiday of Passover, when we tell this story,
is observed by more Jews around the world than any other Jewish holiday.
We tell our stories to remind ourselves of who we are, what are values are.
And we do so with the text that lies in the ark, the center of our worship,
where a collection of our stories, rolled around a wooden rod, are made
holy by our recitation of them.