Keep Up the Fight



More than 50 Reform Jews will gather in Albany, NY, on Monday to advocate for three issues—reproductive health, campaign finance reform and an increase in the minimum wage—as part of Reform Jewish Voice (RJV) of New York State’s Annual Advocacy Day. The latter issue is more salient than ever as many Americans are still struggling to recover from the economic downturn. In a state where 2.6 million residents live below the poverty line ($18,310 for a family of three), an increase in the minimum wage should be the first step in a long line of policy directives to eradicate income inequality and ensure that all New York citizens have the right to live the American dream.

New York is not the only state to consider raising its minimum wage. The issue is also being considered in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri and New Jersey (legislation to raise the minimum wage passed the Delaware State Senate in late January but failed in the House last week). But the action isn’t only in state capitals—in fact, at the same time that RJV’s advocates are meeting with state legislators in Albany, other Reform Jews and faith advocates are working to pass a minimum wage increase in New York City. As Rabbi Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim writes:

New York City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn speaking at a rally on Monday.

I really appreciated Council Speaker Quinn’s embrace of the Living Wage Bill that passed the New York City Council yesterday; appreciated her willingness to defend a bill that represents real economic justice for low-wage workers in New York City; and appreciate her decision to defend the bill despite Mayor Bloomberg’s opposition, which includes the threat of a veto and a lawsuit to prevent the law’s enactment.  Politics being what it can be, here were two sometime allies on behalf of the city disagreeing with one another in a tone of civility that is, sadly, the exception rather than the rule in American politics today.

Just before noon yesterday, when I checked the news on-line and took a glance at my emails and calendar to see what was next, I read this statement from a fellow clergyman about the news conference at City Hall in favor of the Living Wage Bill that was about to be passed:  “The reign of the rich is over!  A new day has dawned in New York City!”

But as Rabbi Bachman added: “Not really.” The New York City Council’s passage of the minimum wage increase is a significant step, and one that should surely be celebrated, but it is just one step in a process that is far from over. And even if the bill becomes law in New York City, there is still work to be done in Albany and in state capitals across the country—not to mention that a low minimum wage is not the only economic injustice that plagues us.

I say this not to discourage us; after all, I am an eternal optimist, and I’m convinced that you can’t work in advocacy—or in Washington, D.C., for that matter—if you’re not one. Rather, my point is the same that Rabbi Tarfon made in Pirkei Avot: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (2:21). The New York City Council’s passage of the minimum wage increase, the work that RJV’s advocates will be doing in Albany on Monday, and the work that all of us do every day to pursue justice, is important because it answers our tradition’s call to repair the world, to make it so that one day, a new day will dawn.

Photo courtesy of The New York Times.

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Deborah Swerdlow

About Deborah Swerdlow

Deborah is the Religious Action Center's Program Associate. She was a 2010-2011 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant

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