Jewish Values and Living Wages


By Frank Goldsmith, Member Steering Committee, CJJ West

Do not oppress the hired laborer who is poor and needy, whether one of your people or one of the sojourners in your land within your gates. Give him his wages in the daytime, and do not let the sun set on them, for he is poor, and his life depends on them . . .

— Deuteronomy 24:14-15

Rabbinic commentary interprets the phrase “his life depends on them” as meaning that anyone who denies a worker his wages “it is as though he takes his life from him.” (Bava Metzia 112a.)

The corollary to these teachings is that if a worker’s life depends upon her wages, then those wages must be sufficient to sustain life.  Yet we know that in contemporary America, that is not the reality.  We have enacted laws that require payment of a minimum wage, but those wages are insufficient to sustain life without outside assistance.  They are not living wages.

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.  A fulltime worker who is paid only the minimum wage earns $15,072.00 annually before taxes.  That is lower than the federal poverty line for a family of two.  The Asheville-based nonprofit Just Economics has calculated that a true living wage for Asheville is $12.50 per hour without employer provided health insurance, or $11.00 with insurance. This amounts to $26,000 per year without benefits, or $22,880 with benefits.

The situation is even worse for workers in the food industry, from farm to restaurant table. If you do nothing else after reading this column, please watch this video that starkly illustrates the behind-the-scenes injustice even at upscale restaurants. The minimum wage for tipped workers is only $2.13 per hour, provided the tips are enough to meet the $7.25 minimum wage.  When a subminimum wage was enacted in 1966, it represented about half of the minimum wage; now a worker must make up in tips two-thirds of her hourly pay to reach the minimum wage. The regulation is difficult to enforce and leads to wage theft by employers. One in three waiters and waitresses in North Carolina earns at or below the federal poverty level. Seventy-eight percent of these workers are women. And as the video illustrates, the rest of the kitchen staff does not generally share in the tips. Restaurant workers are organizing against these injustices; visit to learn more.

It’s even worse for the workers who harvest the food that the wait staff brings to your table.  American labor laws largely exempt growers from having to pay minimum wage to farmworkers. Accordingly, workers who pick tomatoes, for example, are paid by the pound, not by the hour: $0.50 for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes picked in backbreaking labor, yielding an average annual income of about $10,000, well below the minimum wage. This injustice is the subject of a campaign by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, whose representatives recently visited North Carolina synagogues in Asheville and Raleigh. (Incidentally, you, the consumer, would pay the grocer $75-$80 for those 32 pounds of tomatoes.

So what can you, the individual Jew concerned about social justice, do?  Here are some steps you can take:

  • Arm yourself with the facts. Visit the websites mentioned in this column to learn more.
  • Vote with your shopping dollars: visit the Just Economics website,, to learn which local businesses pay a living wage (both Congregation Beth Israel and Congregation Beth HaTephila in Asheville are certified living wage employers), and to learn why paying a living wage makes good business sense.
  • Write or call management of the grocery chains at which you shop and ask them if they have joined the program of the Alliance for Fair Food ( to pay tomato workers fairly (Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Fresh Market, and even Wal-Mart have joined the program; Publix has not; other grocery chains may not yet have been approached).
  • Advocate for legislation increasing the minimum wage and the subminimum tipped employees’ wage.
  • Tip generously when you dine out; your server counts on it.

Our Sages stipulated that workers must be compensated sufficiently to at least cover their most basic needs (Bava Metzia 87a). Maimonides codified that a business may not profit at the expense of its workers and customers (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Thievery 8:20).  It is no less incumbent upon modern Jews to seek fair payment for the labor of all.


Living Wages, from 1909 to Today

by Rabbi Ariel Naveh, UNC Hillel

On November 23rd, 1909, 15,000 members of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, employed in shirtwaist factories all over New York City’s garment district took to a strike. They walked out of their factories and onto the streets, demanding a 20 percent pay raise, a 52 hour workweek, and extra pay for overtime. More importantly, they demanded that each factory become a ‘closed shop’ meaning that these factories would be mandated to hire union workers.

The woman who organized this walkout was 19 year old Clara Lemlich, whose basic involvement in union organizing led to a brutal assault at the hands of factory owner sympathists. The evening before the walkout, after hearing hours of – primarily male – speakers attempting to stall the vote to strike, Clara delivered – in Yiddish – a fiery plea to strike for the sake of those poorly represented women.

Eventually, faced with mounting public support of the strikes, along with calls for solidarity from wealthy suffragists and progressives, most of the garment factories conceded to the bulk of the demands of the picketing workers, forgoing the ‘closed shop’ mandate. Factory owners balked at the outsize influence that these women attempted to pursue, seeing the meager demands for a higher pay and fewer hours as a suitable concession without empowering them further.

This was until March 25th 1911, about a year and a half after the first call to strike, when the Triangle Shirtwaist factory caught fire, and due to the virtual enslavement of the workers in the building, 146 of them perished. Only then, due in large part to a significant increase in governmental oversight and regulation, were factory owners finally forced to reckon with the incredible power that unions can foment.

It is impossible to overstate the role that Jewish labor organizers, garment workers, union backers and professionals had in creating and mobilizing the modern union, and its influence on the rights that are afforded to workers all across the country today. Clara Lemlich, with her impassioned Yiddish appeal, is but one example of the participation that the Jewish community had in empowering themselves and many others to action for the working class. The Arbiter Ring, founded in 1900 as a result of the massive spike in Eastern European and Russian Jewish migration to the United States, sought to provide these new Americans with a wide range of necessary services, including helping them to advocate for the rights that were supposed to have been afforded to them as newly employed members of society.

Steeped in the roots of Yiddish culture that these Jews brought with them from their home communities, the Arbiter Ring sought to demonstrate the deep connections between Jewish tradition, union collectivism, and advocating for the rights of workers. And wow were they right, as within our tradition, there is much to glean to demonstrate that connection. From the Torah to Maimonides, from the Talmud to the Shulkhan Arukh, the text which is the closest our tradition comes to a compendium of law and practice, the party line is clear: employers are mandated to pay their workers a fair, decent wage, in a timely fashion, and without undue burden or condition.

Even the narratives within the Torah, which on their faces discuss primarily wages paid to slave workers but were later extrapolated to include all workers, demand that these workers be paid justly, given suitable time for rest – Shabbat as the original weekend! – and if they chose to leave their employ, furnished with a sizeable amount of the employer’s estate so as to give the former employee ample opportunity to thrive on their own.

We here in Carolina are now faced with a similar mandate to rise up, advocate, and act. Despite significant research that states that allow for union membership see significant increase in wages, greater access to a broad range of benefits, and overall financial stability, North Carolina remains one of the least union-friendly states in the country. As such, workers in all manner of employ cannot suitably advocate for increased wages, better benefits, and more flexible hours. Research also shows that – like the women of the shirtwaist industry over 100 years ago – young women – in particular young women of color – are the hardest hit by these draconian measures.

According to the Durham Living Wage Project, wages adjusted just to the ‘Living Wage’ based on the federal poverty level can lead to lower turnover rates, higher motivation in the workforce, and of course a significant increase in consumer spending, as workers have more means to spend for themselves and their families. These actions, allowing for a modest increase in wages to match basic cost of living needs, may seem like a given, and yet they face an almost unprecedented opposition by people who see these increases as resulting in worker laziness, and somehow surmise that higher wages will equal lower employment across the board. This opposition is both nonsensical, and anathema to the strong tradition we have within Judaism both to advocate for those in positions of vulnerability, and to treat the worker with the dignity they deserve.

In his seminal text The Path of the Righteous, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato wrote that

most people are not outright thieves taking their neighbors’ property and putting it in their own premises. However, in their business dealing, most of them get a taste of stealing whenever they permit themselves to make an unfair profit at the expense of someone else.

Clara Lemlich knew this in 1909 when she organized 15,000 women to join forces and fight for their rights. And today, over 100 years later, we must continue to heed these words, and fight for living wages for all of North Caroina.

Learning Gratitude from the Immokalee Workers

by Rabbi Eric Solomon, Beth Meyer Synagogue and Co-Chair of Truah: Rabbinic Call For Human Rights

At some point in your Thanksgiving meal, it is likely that someone will call for a pause amidst  all of the shmoozing and noshing and the classic question will be raised:  “What are you most thankful for this year?”

For me, I  have usually answered that question with the standard responses: health, family, friends, love, being a Jew.  But my typical answer changed when I traveled with  Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights to Florida and  learned first-hand about what life was once  like for the tomato pickers of Immokalee.  Their stories  painted a picture of oppression that broke my soul:   Workers who were dolloped in pesticides causing  their skin to bleed and babies to be born with deformities. Farmhands who were told that they would be a paid a set wage, only to be later informed that the wage had “changed” or would not come on time, if at all. Female workers who were sexually assaulted by power-hungry bosses.  And, most shocking, instances of workers being locked up at night in trailers that led one US District Attorney to label it  “modern day slavery.”

Thankfully, these workers also shared their inspiring response.  By organizing themselves into the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, they leveraged their power to create the Fair Food Program, or FFP. The FFP was  an industry-changing agreement between famers and workers that guaranteed workers’ rights and protections.  The program empowered an independent regulator to visit the farms, speak with workers, and ensure that laborers were treated with dignity and respect. In just a few years, the FFP revolutionized the industry and has become the gold standard across American agriculture.

Before my trip to Immokalee, I offered a standard Jewish blessing of gratitude before ingesting a tomato, often taking a moment to savor its taste. After Immokalee, I couldn’t look at a tomato without seeing the hand  that picked it from the ground.

As CJJ’nikim enter the Thanksgiving season and gather around tables with loved ones, I invite you to look at the food arrayed before you in the same way. On one of the most festive, patriotic nights of the year, there is nothing more appropriate then bringing to mind those who have labored and potentially suffered in order to bring delectable food to our tables.

So, when someone brings up the classic question, “What are you thankful for?” I encourage you to remember the tomato pickers of Immokalee.  Then, consider taking it one step further and ask your friends if they would be willing to go to their local supermarket (especially if it is Publix, one of the largest supermarket chains refusing to join the FFP) and speak to the store manager about the program.

In that way, you will be helping Thanksgiving became more than just a holiday of  gratitude. It will be a living celebration of  “Liberty and Justice for All.”


Americans Who Tell The Truth Exhibition


Members of the CJJ/West Steering Committee are pictured from left to right in front of the portrait of Paul Wellstone, Political Science Professor and U. S. Senator (1944-2002), exhibited as part of the Americans Who Tell the Truth exhibition at the YMI Cultural Center in Asheville from September 19th to November 7th.  Included in the photo are: Laurie Chess, Marilynne Herbert, Frank Goldsmith, Judy Leavitt and Carol Falender.

The portrait of Senator Wellstone, sponsored by Carolina Jews for Justice, was part of a collection of 52 portraits of leading activists known for their lifetime commitments to social change – from Ella Baker to Fannie Lou Hammer, Congressman John Lewis, Rachel Carson, Cesar Chavez, Pete Seeger, Eleanor Roosevelt to Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II.  All are the work of noted artist Rob Shetterly.

The Americans Who Tell the Truth portraits are intended to offer all of us the models of courageous citizenship we need to meet the urgent social, economic and environmental issues of our time,” according to exhibition curator, Ellie Richard of Education for Engaged Activism.  “I hope this exhibit and future programming of this caliber, will spark the spirit and imaginations of our youth and community members so more and more people will see themselves as the empowered, effective citizens they can become in their own right.  There’s no shortage of work to be done.”

The exhibit in Asheville was sponsored by the Mountain Voices Alliance, Mountain People’s Assembly and the YMI Cultural Center.  After Asheville, the exhibition will travel next to Greensboro.

How Expanding Medicaid in North Carolina is a Mitzvah

By: Marlene Jacoby

The North Carolina legislature’s dance with Medicaid over the last few years is horribly confusing. However, the position that we, as Jews, should adopt is crystal clear. Volunteering as navigator for the Affordable Care Act (ACA also known as Obamacare) at Pisgah Legal Services, I have seen repeatedly the need to expand Medicaid.

To clarify, Medicaid primarily serves the indigent and disabled, is administered by each state individually, and is funded by both Federal and state funds ­– approximately two thirds Federal dollars and one third state dollars. Medicare serves those over 65, the disabled and people with end stage renal disease, and is funded by payroll taxes, income tax, and premiums. When the ACA was passed in 2012, the Federal government gave states the option to expand Medicaid eligibility to cover additional citizens, particularly those who made less than 100% of the Federal Poverty Level making them ineligible for private insurance premium subsidies. The Federal government would pay no less than 90% on a permanent basis and anywhere from 93% to 100% from 2014 to 2022. In North Carolina 500,000 people are exected to benefit from the expansion. These folks are primarily the working poor, including many who are parents of children under 18. The Cone Foundation reported that by expanding Medicaid, North Carolina could expect an additional 43,000 jobs and tens of billions of dollars in revenue by 2020. We are currently only one of 19 states that refused to expand.

Why is there a moral imperative for Jews to support the expansion of Medicaid? There are a myriad of sources, but here are just a few supporting texts:

… whosoever kills a single soul the Bible considers to have killed a complete world. And whosoever sustains and saves a single soul, it is as if that person sustained a whole world. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

Abba the Bloodletter [he bled people for medicinal purposes] placed a box in his office out of public view in which patients could put their fees. People who could afford to pay placed their fees in the box; those who could not afford to pay didn’t have to, and were not ashamed (Babylonian Talmud, Taanis 21b).

Any place that does not have a doctor, whether one is healthy or sick, is not worthy of moving to for all the reasons set out in this chapter, for every person has responsibility for good health. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Law Concerning Beliefs 4:22).

For many more sources see: Jewish Texts for Healing, Healthcare and Gemilut Hasadim compiled by the Union for Reform Judaism. There are the much more recent texts that require we provide health care for those who cannot afford to provide it for themselves. According to Rabbi Elliot Dorff these texts do not appear until the 20th century because until then medical care was so ineffective that is was cheap and available to anyone who wanted it. Times have changed. Medical care can be both effective and expensive. Rabbi Dorf references the requirements for Jews to care for the poor to support universal health care. Surely to care for has to include the provision of health care.

I can attest, without reservation, to the need to expand Medicaid right here in WNC. What most of our congregants take as a right to see a doctor is a constant struggle for many in our community. In my work as a volunteer navigator, I see too many people who fall below the Federal Poverty Level ($11, 770 for 2015) and therefore do not qualify for premium subsidies nor are they eligible for Medicaid since NC did not accept the opportunity to expand. Incidentally when the Affordable Care Act was written, the authors assumed all states would expand Medicaid. North Carolina is one of 19 states that has not opted to expand. The only help navigators can offer these disappointed folks is a sheet of paper listing the free clinics in our area. While surely better than nothing and a nationally recognized effort by the health care providers in our area, these services often require long waits and are not a substitute for a primary care provider and access to specialists. North Carolina can still expand Medicaid.

On September 23, 2015 (Yom Kippur) Governor McCrory signed the Medicaid reform bill, a highly controversial piece of legislation which still has to be approved by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. This approval may well be linked to the state expanding Medicaid. It is not too late to help 500,000 fellow North Carolinians. From a Jewish perspective, a moral perspective, and a fiscal perspective the right thing to do is, indeed, crystal clear. If anything you have read here moves you to help, please let Governor McCrory and your state legislators know you support the expanding Medicaid in North Carolina. It truly is a win – win for all of us.


Teaching Literacy Skills to the 0-5 Age Child

This forum will provide a review of the importance of the first 2000 days (age 0-5) of a child’s life and the significance of developing the literacy skills of this age child to their future education. An emphasis will be given to practical ways adults can teach literacy skills to the child.

Monday, November 2, 2015;  6:30 pm to 7:45 pm

Congregation Beth HaTephila, 43 North Liberty Street, Asheville

Parking on Broad Street, Overflow Parking on the Street

This is a free event but space is limited. Register online by October 30th at

For more details – Early Literacy Skills flyer, 15-11-02

Early Voting Has Begun

Voter Engagement Coalition members,

A big thank you to all organizations that co-sponsored our Voter Guide and Candidate Survey. Please spread the word as early voting has begun that the online version of the resource is available online at The site has been live since Sept 15. The printed version for the general election will be ready the week of October 19.

Greg Borom

Director of Advocacy
Children First/Communities In Schools of Buncombe County
phone: 828-423-0698
twitter: @CFCISAdvocacy