By Ruhi Sophia Rubenstein
I fell in love with Jerusalem when I came here last year as part of a year-long study for my rabbinical program in the US. Like many good love stories, it was unexpected and even fraught. After months of praying with Women of the Wall, visiting the West Bank, arguing in the supermarket, and feeling upset about how Israel didn’t match my vision of a Jewish State, I realized that it only hurt because I cared so much.
So I decided to stay another year, to try to make the love affair work. My rabbinical program gave me a leave of absence. I was accepted to the NIF/SHATIL Social Justice Fellowship, which allows me to work 32 hours a week for an Israeli NGO for ten months and offers professional development, leadership training and a living stipend from NIF/SHATIL.
I accepted a placement with Bema’aglei Tzedek, a Jerusalem based NGO that advocates for workers’ rights and disability access. I was familiar with their flagship project, the Tav Chevrati, a free certification for restaurants that abide by Israeli labor law and provide disability access. The previous year, I had committed to patronizing Tav-certified establishments, so it was natural to work as the Community Coordinator for the Tav Chevrati almost full time. In my job, I interview workers about their conditions as part of our watchdog process for restaurants. I’ve met amazing people and heard amazing stories, like a teenager from East Jerusalem who didn’t know that he was supposed to receive vacations or overtime, or that there are even legal limits on his workday. I interviewed a chef who has worked for years at the same restaurant, and described his boss as family, saying “I was at their son’s brit milah!"
I meet with leaders of local synagogues and of tour companies, trying to help make the connection between the Tav and their organizational values. I also turn to my fellow customers, because we drive the Tav’s success. The more we express a commitment to the Tav, the more business owners are motivated to improve their access and labor practices. If seeing the Tav Certificate that hangs inside or the Tav Sticker on the door becomes one of our criteria for entering the restaurant – it can make a big difference. There are 130 Tav-Certified establishments in Jerusalem now – but there could be more.
That’s why I spent several months creating a Tav Pledge, a new English-language website where people can express their support and commitment to the Tav Chevrati. Pledgers can receive discounts to selected Tav Certified restaurants. They also receive the satisfaction of knowing that their small consumer commitment changes lives: the life of a sous-chef, who instead of working 14 hours days at minimum wage, will work fewer hours with overtime pay, and can both feed and spend time with his family. Or the plight of the Darfurian refugee dishwasher I interviewed, who knew he was supposed to receive health benefits but didn’t know how to access them. We are talking about changing tens and hundreds of lives. This is not sweeping societal change, or world peace or an end to injustice. This works slowly, one story at a time, one meal at a time.
But if there’s one thing that I’ve learned so far at Bema’aglei Tzedek, and during my time in Israel, it’s that small scale social justice efforts might be the most sustainable. In our Tapliyot office, a small staff of Israelis from across the religious and political spectrum come together to organize events and initiatives to improve the lives of all workers in Jerusalem. And that itself might be the real revolution.
To support our work, even if you’ve been a Tav supporter for years, please take the Tav Pledge at http://pledge.tav.org.il.