Monday, October 22, 2012

Foreign labor in Israel by Sarah Friedman

In an emergency ruling about a decade ago, the kibbutz I just left decided to hire foreign workers to be able to meet fruit’s natural (and therefore non-negotiable) harvesting deadlines. In bringing “Thailandim” to the desert oasis, the kibbutz joined a national trend: tens of thousands of Thais work in Israel, according to the BBC.

I spoke to the kibbutz member in charge of workers in the kibbutz’s date fields and learned a lot about the business of bringing in foreign laborers. At first glance, the phenomenon seems anathema to many ideological strains present in Israeli society: socialism, self-reliance, Zionism/nationalism. According to this member, however, it was unavoidable: the kibbutz’s expanding business and aging membership/workforce simply demanded a more reliable source of labor than volunteers or even willing Israeli workers could provide. (One year, the kibbutz hired a cadre of Israelis right out of the military, but the logistical problems other than age mirrored those of kibbutz members: family constraints, occasional medical leave, reserve duty in the IDF.) So kibbutzim hire young Thai men, usually married, who come to Israel on five-year contracts to earn hugely more than they could at home. (Estimates range from double to 20 times). The work force of this particular kibbutz also includes six Eritrean refugees, recruited from the side of the road in Eilat or by word of mouth. These hired workers labor long hours in searing heat often well over 100° Fahrenheit during the summer growing season for juicy Mejdool dates.

The Thai workers live on the kibbutz but don’t participate in the community at all. (The Eritreans live in Eilat and the kibbutz pays for their daily commute.) Living on a kibbutz is such a communal experience, for the members, for volunteers, even for interns at the academic institute on kibbutz property, like me. When the kibbutz voted to hire foreign workers, it actually decided to incorporate them into the community. But the Thailandim come here to earn money for their family back home, not to make new lives. Although they live in a housing block near the volunteers’ quarters, the first group declined the option to eat meals in the kibbutz dining hall – although some Thailandim at a nearby kibbutz do. Instead, they continue to eat traditional foods, which they prepare with ingredients bought in part from a traveling vendor serving the 4,000 to 5,000 Thailandim in the northern Arava.

In Thailand, I’m told, it is an honor to be picked to leave the country – even though it usually means going into debt at first thanks to high, sometimes predatory middleman fees. But that system is changing: since the Israeli and Thai governments signed an agreement in May 2012, Thais can be employed directly by Israeli employers and don’t have to go through the private “manpower agencies” that can take advantage of them by charging exorbitant fees for finding work. I spoke with Sharon, from a different kibbutz, about this new ruling and he expressed skepticism that the system change will improve the prospects of Thailandim or those who hire them. He said (though I wasn’t able to verify) that there will still be middlemen, several large, ostensibly not-for-profit organizations in place of the 50+ private companies now in business. Whether there will be any middlemen or not, the system now will be randomized and anonymized, so current workers cannot arrange for a friend or relative to follow in their footsteps and employers cannot communicate with future employees. Both members I spoke with emphasized that when the regulation goes into effect, small kibbutz industries will suffer from not being able to easily and reliably find workers with specific skill sets, as they do now through personal reference by current workers and logistics facilitated by the middleman. Sharon said that he uses the system to check up on workers before they come and make sure they are not being taken advantage of to get here.

I’m sure that not all employers put in the effort to take care of their future employees or find appropriate niche workers for certain tasks, and I write only from the perspective to which I was directly exposed. But I hope that the advantage of the new system – fairness for workers – will counterbalance the difficulties it will pose for smaller employers and the increased anonymity faced by workers. It’s interesting to observe the situation of foreign workers in a country that prides itself on self-reliance, has mixed feelings about the African refugees who have made it there, and has poor relations full of fear and hostility with most of its immediate neighbors. From what I can see, the physical laborers are welcomed as part of the Israeli economy but not integrated into Israeli society. Other foreign workers – such as the many Filipina caregivers – and other outsiders have different stories, for another post.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Installation Remarks

Shavua everyone!  Please see my remarks upon my installation this past Shabbat.

Installation Remarks
Rabbi David E. Levy
10/5/2012  20 Tishrei 5773

Our Talmud teaches us many blessing that we can say when we experience something good in our lives, one of which is:

Hearing Good News

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶך-הָעולָם הַטּוב וְהַמֵּטִיב.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who is good and causes good.

This is truly a moment for this blessing.   Thank you all for being here tonight, from Rabbi Gewirtz and his wonderful words, my family that came here tonight, and the members of our community.   How good it is to be here tonight with you.   
I begin with a question: Who is Moses?  Throughout the book of Exodus we see particular snapshots from Moses’ life, as he grows into the leader he was meant to be.   The moments of his life are etched into our own minds either from reading the Torah or from Charlton Heston’s classic portrayal.   
We call him Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Rabbi.  However, in looking at the Torah it is abundantly clear that he did not earn that honorific overnight.   Moses grew dramatically from the stutterer he claimed to be at the burning bush, to his eloquent farewell address on Mount Nebo at the end of the Torah.   Moses grew over time learning from friends, and from mentors and getting encouragement from the best of places.  In our Torah reading this week, Moses receives high praise from the Most High:
Exodus 33:12
יְדַעְתִּיךָ בְשֵׁם וְגַם מָצָאתָ חֵן בְּעֵינָי
I know you by name and you have found grace in my eyes.   
Moses didn’t just have a support system that guided him and taught him new things, but he had a cheering section that could not be compared, G-d knew him by name and looked at him favorably. G-d and others mentored and guided Moses to become the leader he was meant to be.
For whomever will either guide teach or cheer you on, the first step is that they know you, and care for you, as G-d did for Moses.  I have been blessed to have mentors and people throughout my life that have known me by name, and found the grace to help guide me.  
My first mentor was my grandfather, Iz, whose yarzheit was this past Yom Kippur.  He taught me everything I need to know about being a mensch, and a gentleman.  That kindness of spirit lives on through me, like a nesting doll, within me.  There are so many people that are both here and afar that have guided me. Allow me to personally thank a few of those who have joined us tonight.  
As much as we learn in Rabbinical School, it is the learning laboratory of the congregation where the rubber hits the road. The past two years that I spent at Temple B’nai Jeshurun were filled with learning, challenge and growth.  The team that I worked with there were amazing, and Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz is a mentor par excellance. His dedication to my growth, his desire to know me and to help me grow is all testament to the type of man and Rabbi he is.  Rabbi Gewirtz is both the sacred agitator, pushing me when he knew I was being my best self in the candid and honest style I so appreciated, as well as the hamishe rebbe, embracing me and my family so warmly.    Thank you for always reminding me to find that balance between head and heart.  Rabbi Doctor Aaron Panken, you taught me about Talmud and 2nd Temple Literature, but more importantly the value of taking ownership of my learning and my growth, thank you for that and so much more. Like all of the people that inspire me in the work that I do, I often hear your voices in my ear pushing me in the right direction.
Thank you to family and friends who are joining us here as well as tuning in via our live webcast.  However, it is my partner, that deserves the greatest thanks.  Kate, you met and started dating a college guy with an earring and who was majoring in Information Systems. I’m so lucky to have had you with me as I began the soul searching work to become a Rabbi.  Your presence in my life from then until now has been a blessing.  You are in all things a fitting mirror: always first to tell me my sermon was great or terrible, always ready with a supportive word or an appropriate critique.   Thank you and Benjamin for being there for me, although Benjamin doesn’t really have a choice just yet, he can’t move far on his own.

I can’t count the number of people who I’ve spoken to who’ve used the language of “Did you survive the High Holidays?”  Yes it was a marathon, but like any marathon runner will tell you, when we finished it felt amazing.  It has been my honor to partner with our amazing team of Clei Kodesh, of clergy, as I begin this journey with you.  Rabbi Blake, Cantor Abramson, Rabbi Burstein, & Cantor Davidson, sharing the bimah with you has been such an invigorating opportunity.  I look forward to our growing relationships and many years of simchahs to come.
The Moses we see in this weeks reading is not the Moses of Ha’azinu, the dramatic poem that caps off the book of Deuteronomy.   He’s also not the Moses who swears he cannot speak.  He is a leader still in formation having moments of greatness and moments of struggle.   He still has more than 40 years of leadership ahead of him, gearing up for another lifetime of working with the Israelites.  It was while Moses was in formation, that he began the sacred responsibility of knowing others by name, and them finding grace in his eyes.   We see Moses working with the Israelites, with both of them growing because of their relationship.
As I look out at our community, I am so grateful that I’m beginning my Rabbinic career with you, as someone still in formation looking forward to a lifetime of sacred partnership with the Jewish people.  From the moment that Kate and I arrived here, we have felt so embraced, and so welcomed.  Like Moses, I look forward to journeying with all of you together.  That we will know each other by name, and find Grace in each others eyes.   

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Sukkot reflection: Operation Escape Desert Storm

Some Reflections on Sukkot in Israel by our member Sarah Friedman!

Sukkot reflection: Operation Escape Desert Storm

In my first attempt at serious physical activity since being kicked by a kibbutz horse
named Loco, I went on what turned into an epic four-hour hike through the desert’s
extreme weather patterns. The weather here has been odd for the last few days – humid,
cloudy, dusty, even a surprising off-season rain. On Saturday night the kibbutz and the
area as far as we could see blacked out for about 15 minutes. Yesterday, Erev Sukkot, we
expected more of the same slight weirdness but thought nothing of going on a desert hike
behind the kibbutz.

A friend and I hiked through a wadi, scrambled up a vertical rock wall, walked over
a pebbly mountaintop over a oil pipeline road, and goat-walked over a sand dune
streaked with green copper into Crystal Canyon, a huge wadi full of strange layered rock
formations. The enormous canyon ended in a 150-200 meter vertical wall, and the view
from that end back through the wadi and over the mountains was awe-inspiring. As we
sat talking on the rocks, we felt a few light raindrops, and moments later the sky turned
dark orange and we were in the middle of a sandstorm. The rain quickened and we heard
thunderclaps, and my friend helpfully said that there could be a flash flood. (Flashback to
the horror stories my NFTY counselors told of hikers killed in desert flash floods, stories
impossible to fathom as we trekked through the dry, sandy supposed flood zones in the
July heat. But it does happen: as incongruous as desert flooding seems, sand and rock
don’t absorb water so heavy rains cause flash floods.) We ran and scrambled to get out
of the wadi as soon as possible, and I noticed how terrifying and beautiful the sky looked
but was too anxious to stop for a photo. We slid down the sand dunes instead of carefully
hedging our steps as we had on the way in.

At that point, between our position on rocky flats and the rain’s stabilization, my friend
declared we were no longer in danger. My fear evaporated once we arrived on the
pipeline road again, and then it was just exciting to observe and be caught in the sheer
power of natural forces around us. Besides the constant expansive beauty of the desert
and mountains, there was the powerful, disorienting sandy wind and an eerily dusty sky
whose light’s origin we couldn’t discern – the end of the sun or the full moon already
risen? After an hour of carefully climbing down, as we hiked the flat land between the
mountains and the kibbutz, we saw vivid flashes of orange emanating from horizontal
lightning bolts over Jordan.

The dramatic lightning storm continued as I recovered from this epic natural journey,
causing excitement among kibbutzniks accustomed to normal desert weather and several
brief power outages during the festive Sukkot meal. Comfortably feasting at a table in a
solidly constructed sukkah just hours after I was hurdling over rocks to avoid becoming
the next warning story, I reflected on how far removed we truly are from the time
Sukkot calls us back to. We eat in booths for seven days to commemorate the exodus our
ancestors made from Egypt, but we can’t know what it was like to live for forty years in
a state of transience. For forty years, everywhere they lived and everything they did was
temporary. They were on the move, at the mercy of nature and dependent on themselves

and their leader. My encounter with the raw, harsh forces of nature this climate supports
ended when I made it back to what the kibbutz calls my “caravan” – a trailer technically,
but a solid dwelling with a shower, air conditioning, refrigeration, countless amenities the
Israelites obviously did not have. Their caravan consisted of themselves and their journey
ended only when they arrived in Israel. We try to connect with their story by building
sukkot, but it’s difficult to truly inhabit their mindset.

There is one way, however, in which we are closer to true observance of Sukkot than
we have been in centuries: once again a Jewish homeland thrives in the Land of Israel.
Sukkot is a pilgrimage holiday, and although most of us are no longer attuned to the
agricultural calendar on which the holiday is based, we can travel to Israel any time
during the year. Being here connects us to our ancestors more than anything else.