On Power, Hope, and Change

A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah, 5772

Rabbi Barbara Penzner


I’d like to start by talking about the movies. Who here has seen “Moneyball”? Who is planning to see it? Good, that means that you may have some idea about the movie. It’s the story of Billy Beane, general manager of the 2002 Oakland Athletics. Yes, I know you are thinking that I have to get my baseball reference in somewhere. I am a sucker for good baseball movies. You may not know, too, that I swoon for Brad Pitt.


But that is not the reason I want to talk about Moneyball. Let me tell you up front, there’s a spoiler ahead. However, what happened in 2002 is history, not fiction. You can look it up. What moved me, at heart, about this movie was Billy Beane’s dream. It wasn’t to break a record, which the A’s did. And it wasn’t to win a World Series ring, which they didn’t. Billy Beane’s dream, at least according to the movie was to change the game of baseball. Stuck with a last–place team in a small market with a piddly payroll of $38 million, he had no chance of competing with teams—like the Yankees and the Red Sox—in large markets with tons of cash.


Billy Beane wanted to change the game of baseball, to even the playing field. He believed in it so much, that he turned down a 12 million dollar offer by the Red Sox and chose instead to stay in Oakland.


I left the movie wondering: was Billy Beane a success or a failure? If you say he was a failure because he didn’t achieve his ultimate goal, he didn’t even the playing field, then I say, look again. Because it all depends on how we measure success. Billy Beane did succeed in earning respect for his team and building the confidence of a group of players who are called in the film “an island of misfit toys.”  He took a risk, he stood up for his principles and in many ways, he did change baseball.


The truth is, we are all trying to make changes that are overwhelmingly hard. We come to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah to try to become better human beings. Tomorrow we may make mistakes. We will make mistakes. But that does not constitute failure, as long as we have taken one step forward.

Many of us are trying to change our society from a system, like Major League Baseball, that values money and fame into a society that cares about human beings.


[Place pillow on the table.]


Which is why I want to talk to you about sleep. We all need it. Few of us get enough of it. And when we are really really fortunate, we get to take a vacation somewhere in a nice hotel where we can catch up on our sleep in a luxurious, pillow-top bed where someone else comes in to make the bed and to clean our bathroom in the morning.


But I don’t sleep as well in hotels as I used to, because now I know a lot more about the workers who make the beds, which are heavier than ever before and a source of disabling injuries. I have met the housekeepers who clean the bathrooms, using toxic chemicals that can cause injury and respiratory problems. And I know that many hotel chains are increasing the workload for housekeepers, expecting them to do in 15 minutes work that used to take them 30 minutes.


While these workers suffer from increasingly impossible working conditions, the Hyatt Hotel chain is making record profits. Here’s how they do it:


Last spring, I saw a print ad for Hospitality Staffing Solutions, the subcontractor who Hyatt Corporation hired two years ago to replace their housekeeping departments in Boston. HSS demonstrated their expertise in staffing hotels with a photo of various hotel workers in uniform – housekeepers, janitors, kitchen workers — inside a vending machine. HSS had no shame in showing the world their “solution” to hiring: they simply push a button and these folks slip out of a machine like a coke bottle. Presumably one is just as good as another. In a culture where price is the number one value, human dignity dies.


In these hard times, with so many people out of work, where can we find hope? How can those working the hardest jobs for the least amount of pay ever hope for something better?


I learned about hotel workers directly these past two years from Maria and Drupattie and Arecelly and other housekeepers who used to work in the Hyatt Hotels. And what I learned from those workers, more than how hard they work and how poorly they have been treated, is that they have not given up hope.


The workers whose jobs were replaced by underpaid outsourced untrained cleaners have not been sitting at home in despair over their lot. They have become empowered to make change on behalf of others like them.


This past summer, the workers invited a group of rabbis in North America to come listen to them tell their stories. After hearing tales of rampant abuse, refusals to negotiate, inhuman increases in the workload, the rabbis issued a report. We declared the boycotted Hyatt Hotels lo kasher—not kosher.


I also want to share with you an exciting new development that I just learned about before Rosh Hashanah. On Tuesday, the Cambridge Licensing Commission voted to prohibit hotels from outsourcing housekeeping jobs.  This new regulation pertains to one hotel in Cambridge with outsourced housekeepers: the Hyatt.


These are important steps in turning the hotel industry around, as the Hyatt housekeepers seek to change the system from a culture that treats workers like items in a vending machine to a society that imbues individuals with dignity.


Which brings me to tomatoes.            [Place tomato on the table.]

Who likes tomatoes? Do you like salads? Burritos? Even if you don’t like tomatoes, everyone likes to eat, right? And lately I’ve been learning a lot about where our food comes from, who is working in the fields to harvest our food, and how vulnerable farm workers are. In a system that values wealth over human dignity, a tomato picker receives 50 cents for a 32-pound bucket of juicy red fruit that will sell in the grocery stores for $80.


Geraldo, a tomato picker I met in Florida two weeks ago lamented, “Why do I spend every day harvesting food for the rest of America and then have to stand in line at a food pantry on Thanksgiving for a plate of food?”


The answer is that work and poverty go hand in hand in our country. Not only that.  Tomatoes are not the only fruit growing in Florida today. South Florida’s most shameful harvest is modern-day slavery. Yes, slavery is a part of nearly every country in the world today. Most shamefully, slavery exists here, in the United States of America. Simply put, slavery today involves three components: deception, coercion and the exploitation of vulnerable workers.


The subcontractors who bring workers to the fields seek out immigrants at the border and homeless people in shelters. They promise them jobs and houses if they come work in the fields.The crew bosses find these desperate people, promise them everything and then take it all back. They hold them hostage to the debt that accrues for their transportation from the border, for their food and lodging, all at highly inflated prices. Then they threaten the workers with guns, or cut them with knives to coerce them to stay until they have worked off their debt to the boss. Some have even chained men inside hot trucks overnight to prevent them from escaping. All the while, the workers spend their days in the hot Florida sun, without water, without shade, filling heavy buckets of tomatoes that you and I will enjoy in our salads and burritos.


Fortunately, a group of workers have banded together and drawn allies to help them fight slavery. The Coalition for Immokalee Workers has led to the prosecution of nine cases against abusive crew bosses and succeeded in freeing 1000 workers from their cruelty. But that is not enough for the CIW. Like Billy Beane, and like the Hyatt housekeepers, the CIW is thinking differently about how to change the system.


The next stage of the Campaign for Fair Food is to make everyone in the supply chain accountable: from the growers who look the other way, to the supermarkets who refuse to listen, to you and me, who get to enjoy Florida tomatoes in January. CIW is using the power of the marketplace to buy justice.


The tomato pickers have identified three goals that will improve their lives:

1. to enter into dialogue with the growers about their working conditions

2. to have their dignity respected

3. to receive a small wage increase to enable them to live in safe, affordable housing.


To meet these goals, the CIW has succeeded in working directly with the growers. We met with one of the growers in Immokalee, a Jewish man who was leading the fight for the workers. After seven years of refusing to talk to the CIW, this man decided, in a powerful act of teshuvah, that he needed to do what is right. He sat down with his managers and talked about it, and decided to sign on. Now 90% of the growers in Florida have agreed to abide by a Code of Conduct to protect workers from exploitation and abuse, starting this fall. The Code of Conduct does not tolerate slavery, sexual abuse or child labor on tomato farms. The growers have also agreed to pay workers a penny-a-pound more to help improve the workers’ living conditions.


The only catch is that there is no accountability unless the corporations that buy tomatoes also agree to support the Campaign for Fair Food. To date, Taco Bell, McDonalds, Subway, Burger King and Whole Foods have all agreed to work with CIW and only to buy tomatoes from responsible growers.


There are still a lot of supermarkets that have not signed on.  CIW has now turned national attention to Trader Joes to help protect tomato pickers. Yes, our familiar Trader Joes, a company that prides itself on ethical business practices is refusing to join the Campaign for Fair Food. But not for long. With our help, Trader Joes will see that customers do not want to buy tomatoes that were picked by slaves in Florida.


The Midrash teaches: If a person of learning participates in public affairs and serves as judge or arbiter, that person gives stability to the land. But if a person sits in their home and says to themselves, “What have the affairs of society to do with me? Why should I trouble myself with the people’s voices of protest?  Let my soul dwell in peace!?”  If one acts this way, they bring destruction to the entire world. (Midrash Tanchuma, Mishpatim 2)


Our souls cannot dwell in peace when the food we eat is picked by slaves. Our souls cannot dwell in peace when our comfort depends on others’ oppression. Once you have become conscious and aware of the world around you, passivity is not a neutral stance. Failure to act harms us even as it brings destruction to our world.


The CIW teaches a simple formula: Consciousness + commitment = change.

That is true whether we seek social change or personal transformation. Awareness is a spiritual quality that leads directly to acting in the world with purpose. One cannot become conscious and remain inactive.


We have all been struggling through difficult times. Our world is greatly in need of repair. AND you and I have been blessed with homes to sleep in, enough food to feed our children and a community to lean on. Awareness allows us to recognize both the struggles and the blessings. Our struggles will continue. All of life is about struggle. And that makes the celebrations even more sweet and even more crucial.


The question is, how do we face those struggles? In the face of challenge do we stand up or lie down? Are we helpless or helpful? Are we overwhelmed by the problems or uplifted by the blessings?


Change is hard. We will not change the system overnight, just as we will not wake up tomorrow and be tzaddikim. Nevertheless, we can be inspired by each success.


I have learned from Geraldo and Nellie and Lucas the meaning of power. I have learned from Drupattie and Maria and Aracelly the meaning of hope.


What can you do with your power? Take a postcard outside and send it to the CEO of Trader Joe’s, telling him that you will not pay for slave labor. When you choose your vacation hotel, send a message that you will not stand for out-sourced workers. The greatest power we have lies in how we live our lives every day. Parents and teachers have an even greater power. When you write a letter or attend a protest or support a candidate or when you vote, you model for our children the kind of adult we hope they will choose to become.


The central message of the Shema is to be an ed, to bear witness. The first word of Shema, ends with the silent letter, ayin. The last word of the shema,echad, ends with the powerful letter dalet. We could choose to be silent, like the ayin. Or we can choose to speak out, like the dalet. Together, the two letters form the word ed, which means witness.


By telling you these stories, I bear witness to the struggles of people on the lowest rungs of our economic ladder. And I am also bearing witness to the greatness of the human soul to link arms with others, to draw on the rich reservoirs of divine goodness and to create something from nothing, sustenance from poverty, strength from weakness, power from powerlessness.


In this New Year, may our hands be strengthened with power and our hearts be lifted with hope. May we find the courage to fix what is broken in the world, and the faith to heal the brokenness inside our own hearts. And may the change that we seek be a force for compassion, for justice and for human dignity.


Ken yehi ratzon