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Keeping It Kosher

Is a hotel no longer to be considered kosher because of the way it treats its housekeepers? Is a restaurant or a factory treyf because of how it treats its workers?

Jews in America have long been concerned with the rights of workers and the conditions of employment, but those concerns have largely been framed in secular terms, based either on personal experiences in tenement sweatshops and the like, or within a broader political agenda. Now, more and more religious leaders are considering the laws of kashrut to apply to the human beings who serve us as well as to the animals we consume.

The latest example is a report issued at the very end of June by a group of Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis and community leaders decrying what they contend are deplorable working conditions at Hyatt hotels. In calling for a boycott of the hotels, these leaders are directly challenging a huge hotel chain that was, until 2009, privately owned by the Pritzkers, a wealthy and politically powerful Jewish family that still retains a sizable control of the public company.

The agitation began in 2009, after Hyatt fired 98 of its housekeepers in three Boston area hotels in one day, and then turned to an outsourcing company that paid its employees a lower wage with fewer benefits. That company, Hospitality Staffing Solutions, was later fined nearly $50,000 by state inspectors in Indiana for inadequately providing safety training for housekeepers. Now the report is recommending that the boycott be extended to any of Hyatt’s hotels where workers themselves ask for it.

“We pledge to treat the Hyatt as lo kasher/not kosher for events and celebrations until it treats its workers with justice,” the Jewish leaders declared.

Hyatt did not respond directly to the report, but said that it “cares deeply about the health and safety of our associates.” The dispute over Hyatt’s housekeepers is also wound up in a nationwide effort to unionize such workers, and we cannot independently assess whether conflicting claims of low wages, poor training, impossible work quotas and impediments to free union elections are legitimate.

But this much is clear: The extensive documentation and textual support in the rabbinical report is a welcome addition to a growing number of efforts to link Jewish law and scholarship to timely social concerns. Advocates for the environment, labor, sustainable agriculture and development policy increasingly use Jewish language and teachings to frame their arguments. The rabbinic report on Hyatt calls social teachings on labor “the best kept secrets of our religious tradition.” Not anymore.

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