May 25, 2004

Hillel fundraiser draws protest

Several students from the University and other Chicago campuses joined picketers supporting a workers' strike against the Congress Plaza Hotel for health insurance benefits on Sunday. The students were protesting a fundraising event to celebrate a recent alternative spring break program in Argentina to perform community service that included students from the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, and DePaul University.

The celebration was organized by the Illinois Federation of Hillels, which includes the University's Newberger Hillel Center.

For nearly a year, workers of the Congress Plaza Hotel have been on strike against a seven percent pay cut, and the elimination of family health insurance. Many students felt that by holding the event at the hotel, Hillel was endorsing the hotel's position on an ongoing strike by workers of the hotel.

Since one of the Argentina trip participants has family connections to the hotel management, the event's organizers were offered a significantly reduced room rate.

"As a Jew and an active member of Hillel though, I am particularly angered by the flagrant violation of Jewish laws and traditions," said Jonah Rubin, a University student who helped organize the student protest. "Jewish law from Leviticus to the Talmud is extremely supportive of the worker, and specifically of the right to strike and unionize."

Representatives of Hillel claim that the event was not intended to take any stance on the workers' strike. "The fact that the Congress Hotel is being picketed by workers did not come up in the planning of the event," said Rabbi David Rosenberg, executive director of the Newberger Hillel Center. "The choice to hold the event there was not intended at the time, or later, as a statement of disregard for workers' rights. By the time the issue came to our attention, it was no longer possible to find another venue."

About 15 to 20 students attended the protest, with at least two from the University. Members of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs stood in the picket line with leaders from the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP). They joined the picket lines, shouting, wearing t-shirts, and holding signs stating, "Jews Don't Cross Picket Lines, source: the Talmud." They also handed out literature, and left messages on answering machines for both the Hillels of Illinois and the Congress Hotel to express their disappointment with the respective institutions.

"We were also able to speak to the owner of the Hotel. Speaking to him from a Jewish perspective about our concern for his blatant violation of labor rights was extremely productive," said Michal Ran, who helped organize and attended the event. "We were also able to show the workers on the strike line that they did indeed have support from Jews and from students, even if Hillel itself had decided to cross the picket line."

Emily Alpert, a second-year in the College who participated in the trip to Argentina but also picketed the event, was happy to be given the opportunity to support what she considered to be a long history of Jewish support for labor rights. "It was a very difficult position, as I know a number of the students involved, and as my own unwillingness to confront the issue earlier had complicated the situation considerably," she said.

Alpert said that the Jewish community should continue to support workers and labor rights. Historically, the Jewish community has been very supportive of labor activism; for example, Samuel Gompers, a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, was Jewish.

Protesters felt that any presence at the Hotel symbolized solidarity with the Hotel owner. "Those who choose enter and do business in the hotel are de facto supporting the employer, and those who do not enter are likewise supporting the worker," Rubin said.

Nevertheless, the Newberger Hillel Center was supportive of students' right to protest the event. "Jewish students were certainly in their rights to join a picket line at the Congress Hotel," Rosenberg said.

Although the Newberger Hillel Center attempted to cancel the event, they were unable to do so. "In retrospect, we are sorry that the choice of venue led to the very mistaken conclusion that Hillel ‘implicitly endorses crossing picket lines.'   With the advantage of hindsight, the citywide planning committee might well have chosen a different venue," Rosenberg said.

Others, however, have different opinions about why the last-minute attempt to cancel was unsuccessful. "The reason they did not succeed is because other Hillels receive donations from the owner of the Hotel and thus consider him a ‘Jewish philanthropist,' " Ran said. "I think our decision to protest this event made Hillel recognize that they must hold Jews accountable as Jews and as persons."

The protesters who attended felt the event was successful in forcing the Hotel and the Illinois Federation of Hillels to reevaluate such decisions. "I hope that Hillels of Illinois and the Jewish Federation of Chicago will reconsider their flagrant violations of Jewish law and tradition," Rubin said. "At the very least, I hope they know that when they do these immoral and irreligious actions, they alienate, anger, and risk losing large segments of their constituency."

The Newberger Hillel Center, which is well known on campus for its social work, looks forward to new ways in which their programs can address student concerns. "We welcome the opportunity to consider the ways in which we can, as a Hillel foundation, incorporate the social justice concerns of students into our upcoming programs," Rosenberg said.