Orthodox, and Sticking With the Union

By Nathaniel Popper

Published June 03, 2009, issue of June 12, 2009.
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Recent controversies about labor issues in the Jewish community have often become battles between non-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews. At the Congress Plaza Hotel in Chicago, this paradigm seems to hold, with rabbis from more liberal denominations protesting the Orthodox Jewish owners of the hotel.

Solidarity: Rabbi Asher Lopatin has worked with pro-union Jewish groups on the Congress Hotel strike.
JEWISH COUNCIL ON URBAN AFFAIRS
Solidarity: Rabbi Asher Lopatin has worked with pro-union Jewish groups on the Congress Hotel strike.

But in Chicago, the standard mold is broken by Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who is the head of one of Chicago’s biggest and most vibrant Orthodox synagogues, Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation. Lopatin, 44, has become one of the most outspoken critics of the Congress Hotel’s management. He signed a letter to the hotel’s manager, asking for a meeting (it was refused), and he criticized the decision to hold an Orthodox singles event at the hotel (it was eventually canceled).

“I generally see myself as right- of-center politically,” Lopatin told the Forward just outside the hotel, “but to me these things are no-brainers — they’re not left/right issues.”

In addition to his work on the hotel, Lopatin was involved in protesting the Orthodox owners of the Agriprocessors kosher slaughterhouse, which was the subject of an immigration raid in May 2008. It all has added up to some discouraging conclusions for Lopatin.

“There seems to be a pattern of Jews, and especially Orthodox Jews, not knowing how to relate to gentiles,” Lopatin said. “We have a history of really trying to survive as Jews and having to protect ourselves constantly, but now we are in a different reality. If you want to stay in the Brooklyn ghetto, maybe that’s okay. But if you want to go out into the rest of world and get involved in real business, you can’t just have the same paradigm we had in Europe or the Middle East.”

Lopatin has never been an ordinary rabbi. Before studying for the rabbinate at Yeshiva University, he won a Rhodes Scholarship to study Islamic thought at Oxford. Lopatin said that Orthodox yeshivas have not done a good enough job of giving their students a well-rounded education.

“At yeshiva, we spent a lot of time on the laws of kashrut and the laws of marriage, but we didn’t spent a lot of time on the laws of ethics. We’re going to have to start doing this,” he said.

Since coming to Chicago, he has made a name for himself by pushing for a more open, progressive vision of Orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Michael Azose, who has supported the Congress Hotel’s owners, says that he respects Lopatin but does not see him in the mainstream of Orthodox rabbis.

“I would say he is more on the left —-— but he is a wonderful person,” Azose said. “I like him personally, and I think he has done a lot for his community, but others would say he is way on the left.”

After the Agriprocessors raid, Lopatin joined with a small group of other Orthodox rabbis who were critical of the company’s owners, many of whom are affiliated with a new New York City school, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Lopatin said he recognizes that the criticism of management in both Chicago and Iowa has been led by unions — and he is not among those who believe unions are always necessary. But the Congress, he said, “is a total dump. Even before I knew about the labor issue, I wondered why there was this lack of respect for the city.”

The hotel’s manager, Shlomo Nahmias, said that the hotel is in good shape and that large parts of it recently had been renovated.

Lopatin said the hotel’s management ignores certain realities, similar to what he believes happened in the case of Agriprocessors.

“I remember the ads defending Agriprocessors — talking about how it’s this modern, clean factory,” Lopatin said. “People were just deluding themselves. That’s the impression I have here, as well.”


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