Eight stories about Hanukkah and labor to brighten your holiday!

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Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is about dedication, power of faith, liberation, and hope.

To celebrate those eight upcoming nights, some of the New England JLC’s Board members and other associates wrote personal stories about Hanukkah and labor, looking at modern day miracles, spirituality over materiality, unifying against oppressive forces, and inextinguishable hope in dark or difficult times.

Each evening we will be posting a new story to share our joy and brighten your Hanukkah’s nights.


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By Ashley Adams*
Many multi-colored candles burning together, providing brilliant light: Hannukah, yes?  I had union experience that mimicked that.
I had a union organizing campaign in Quincy at a place with a tripartite workforce: white Americans, black Americans, and Haitians.  The place was a festering pit of owner indifference and neglect — with short staffing, inadequate equipment and supplies, and an administrator who showed up once a week and snorted coke in his office.
I got a call from a nurse there.  She filled me in.  After leaving her house I met workers continuously over a non-stop 48 hour period, one after the other, at their homes, at restaurants, coffee shops, and even inside my car in their parking lot — so urgent was their desire to fight back by organizing a union.  But I kept hearing the same refrain: “Our group will organize, but those others…”  They had reasons that made sense to them too.  “The blacks don’t care how bad it is” said the whites; “The whites are with the bosses” said the blacks; “The Americans don’t know how to fight” said the Haitians.  And so it went, like separate, powerless, melting and barely visible candles of despair.
I challenged them with a meeting the following night at a white nursing assistant’s house near the nursing home.  I told them only to worry about getting their group there, and promising that if the other groups didn’t show up that we’d forget the whole thing — before the boss found out.  Even so, their reluctance and their suspicions of each other were powerful. “They don’t trust each other.  It’s going to take a miracle!” I thought.

They arrived in stages.  A mass of white workers were there by 6:50 for the 7:00 meeting.  A whole bunch of Haitians came together too at 7:00 exactly.  Every single one of the black workers came in at 7:05.  Lee, their tough, tall, broad-shouldered female leader walked in first, looked around, smiled broadly, and said loudly, “THE WHITE PEOPLE ARE HERE — MAN, WE GOT OURSELVES A UNION”.  And so they did, with every one of them, Haitian, black, and white together, marching into the boss’s office to demand recognition two days later at exactly 3PM when the shifts overlapped.  They worked together, threatening a strike, until they won their first contract — their common brightness sustained long after others, less committed, might have faded.  Haitian, black, and white together.  A miracle? Who’s to say otherwise?

*Ashley Adams has been a union organizer, representative, and trainer for 31 years, since 2000 with the Massachusetts Teachers Association.  He is also the past-president of Temple Hillel B’Nai Torah, in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.  He has been a loyal member, and is a past-co-chair of the New England Jewish Labor Committee.  He is happily married to a wonderful woman and is the proud father of two adult daughters.  In his spare time he is a poker player and author, having written ‘Winning 7-card Stud’ (2003), ‘Winning No Limit Hold’em’ (2012) and ‘Union Power Tools’ (2012).

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By Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Light the Inner Light
The few overcoming the many, the weak prevailing over the mighty-the victory of the Maccabees is extolled in miraculous terms. We have seen similar miracles in our own day.

While we live in a time of darkness, when the concentration of wealth in the hands of a powerful few seems unassailable, when political solutions to everyday problems seem unreachable, and when fighting for basic rights seems unavoidable, a candle of hope pierces the doom.
I have met workers who have risked everything they have in order to win benefits for their coworkers. I watched a hotel housekeeper enter the Hyatt shareholder’s meeting in a Chicago hotel ballroom and stand up to tell her truth. I have stood by Doubletree hotel workers who protested in the cold to make their case known to Harvard University. I have been in awe of their strength, faith and courage.And they have won. In 2013 the Hyatt workers won good contracts for those in union hotels across the country. In 2014, the Hyatt 100 in Boston received compensation five years after they were fired. Also this year, the workers at Le Meridien Hotel in Cambridge won their first contract after a long boycott. The few overcame the many and the weak prevailed over the mighty. We might add, the poor shamed the wealthy.

These individuals stood up for their rights with a deep faith and unfathomable courage. They had so much to lose: their jobs, their health, their families’ security. Yet they stood together, they persevered, they refused to give up. On Hanukkah, let’s celebrate all the Maccabees, in ancient days as in our own, who carried the light within their hearts that led to miraculous victories.

As poet Charles Reznikoff wrote in his poem, “Hanukkah”:
The miracle, of course, was not that the oil for the sacred light–
in a little cruse–lasted as long as they say;
but that the courage of the Maccabees lasted to this day:
let that nourish my flickering spirit.
(From Meditations on the Fall and Winter Holidays)

May your Hanukkah bring light to the darkness in your life!


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By Emilia Diamant*

While in Costa Rica after college, I decided to take on the task of cooking latkes for all the residents of the school where I was working. Twenty-five people, lots of potatoes and onions, and eventually a large plastic storage container full of latke mix. It was no small task, and as I cried over the onions I couldn’t help but think of the three incredible women who worked the kitchen at Country Day School in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. They fed 100 students every day, traveling from a nearby town by bus to cook from 7 a.m. until lunch, then they prepared dinner for the boarding program. The next day I went to talk with them, to get to know them and understand how they could accomplish such incredible feats. They began to teach me the dishes their mothers’ made, telling me stories of long commutes to work, their close knit families of 10 who lived in their three-room home, their passion for food, their longing for more time with their children. Every single day they cooked for us, and every single day they provided for their families. Every Chanukah, when I cry over onions, I also cry tears of joy for the women who taught me what real joy is, what real love is, and what real work is. Their legacies are with me every time I cook, but especially during these nights of light and family.*Emilia Diamant is the Assistant Director of Prozdor at Hebrew College. She lives in Boston with her boyfriend and their two dogs, and when she gets the chance she likes to dance to Beyonce, experience slam poetry, and watch the Red Sox.


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By Rabbi Toba Spitzer*

As we light the Chanukah candles, we are reminded of the many ways to bring light into this world–the light of freedom, the light of justice, the light of love and compassion. One moment of “light” for me was the opportunity, a few years ago, to get arrested alongside members of the Hyatt 100, as we protested their unfair treatment at the hands of hotel management. The women’s courage and dedication, their refusal to be silenced, was enormously inspiring to me. As a dozen of us women sat in the holding tank in a Boston Police station, we laughed and told stories about our lives and I felt lucky to be with them. I led us in a “Shehecheyanu” (a Jewish prayer for special occasions or first times) because it was the first time each of us has been arrested.

It was an honor to be one among thousands of people around the country who rallied to their cause, making sure that the Hyatt Corporation would not repeat their summary firing of an entire housekeeping staff anywhere else. This year, Hyatt finally acknowledged their misstep, offering reparations for their treatment of the Hyatt 100. As we light the Chanukah candles this year, may we gain strength from the women and men of the Hyatt 100 and of the thousands of workers around the country daring to stand up for their rights, shining a light into all of the dark places.

*Rabbi Toba Spitzer is Rabbi of Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, a Reconstructionist Jewish community in West Newton. She is also on the Advisory Board of the New England Jewish Labor Committee, the Executive Committee of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, and the Board of T’ruah-Rabbis for Human Rights.


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By Martin Abramowitz*

I haven’t been entirely happy for many Chanukahs now. Feels too much like Jewish nationalism and particularism and ethnic pride when we should be spending more spiritual energy reflecting on the underlying unity of life. Feels too “freedom-focused” when we should be thinking more about responsibility and obligation… but also not a bad time to remember that as Americans (as well as American Jews) we “are all in
this together”; that we should be expressing our sense of unity and empathy and obligation to and on behalf of ALL working people. I’m glad the New England Jewish Labor Committee is around to do that.

*Martin Abramowitz previously held Jewish communal professional leadership positions in Jerusalem, Montreal, and Boston. He is the founder and CEO of Jewish Major Leaguers and a Volunteer Consultant to the Board of the New England Jewish Labor Committee.


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By Marya Axner*

When I was a child my parents invited over my cousins and aunts and uncles to celebrate Chanukah. This involved everyone making latkes (potato pancakes). We had around 8 potato graters of varying sizes and stages of dilapidation. We all got down to work, scraping potatoes – each potato got smaller until it was a nub. We kept scraping them until we inevitable scraped our fingers and they bled into the latke batter. This, it was said, made the latkes better. It was hard work and we were happy when it was done and we could eat the delicious latkes.

I look back and miss those days. Since then, I have moved far away from my cousins and I use a food processor, not graters, to make our potato latkes. We still have a wonderful time, but there was something gained and something lost. So that is also true with American Jews and our relationship to other working people. Many of us have moved into the professions and are no longer cutters of cloth, sewers of dresses, taxi cab drivers, electricians, etc. Something was gained from that move but something was also lost.

However, at the New England Jewish Labor Committee we offer an important bridge between our Jewish lives today and our history. We have not forgotten that we are working people and we are connected to all working people. We know that people who work with their hands are still our people and we are not separate from them. As Jews, we take on the hard and time-consuming job of making sure that all workers get treated with dignity and respect. Those values have not changed. Having those values as a guide, my life goes better and my potato latkes are still delicious.

*Marya Axner is the Regional Director of the Jewish Labor Committee. She makes latkes with her husband Mark and her daughter Rae.

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