The Leftist Ethicist, May Edition

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May 16, 2013

The Leftist Ethicist is an advice column for Zeek readers who envision a more just world and act to create it. With a commitment to justice and progressive Jewish teaching (and a loving nod to the Bintel Brief), the Leftist Ethicist provides a space to raise questions, without judgment, and receive sensible solutions.

A couple of months ago I started to volunteer at an organization whose members are low-income African-American women. From working with them, I have learned so much about important issues that they face every day. It has been very intense to hear all that they go through. Now, twice, I have heard members make anti-Semitic comments — a joke about “Jewing someone down” and a statement about “the rich Jews.” They don’t know I’m Jewish, since I’ve never said anything and I’m pretty secular. I was really surprised and uncomfortable. I feel like I should have said something, but I don’t know how and don’t feel like it is my place to lecture these women about oppression.

Why don’t the members know that you’re Jewish? Is it a simple oversight? Are you worried about being linked to the negative stereotypes? Feeling that you’re not “Jewish enough” to discuss Jewish identity?

Now is the time to push yourself to share about your Jewish identity, especially in more intimate conversations. The members of the organization share a lot about themselves as they organize in their community for change, and you are benefiting from learning about their lives and struggles. The women will respect you more and feel closer to you if you share about your life, too, and being Jewish is a good place to start. Jews, including lots of non-religious Jews, have a long history of supporting civil rights struggles, and your volunteer work is part of that legacy. That is something to be proud to share. Some people might be surprised to hear about poor or working-class Jews or Jews of color. On the other hand, lots of Jews hold positions of power and wealth. Sometimes Jews are slumlords or bad bosses, and sometimes they’re fighting to get their own taxes raised. Be honest about this, too. Every culture has mensches and putzes. Jews are no different. People may get comfortable enough with you to ask you questions about Jews and Jewishness. You don’t need to be an encyclopedia, just open to discussion.

You may even have some of these women who were making comments before standing up against them in the future. Or in the least, you will have built enough of a mutual relationship to lovingly remind people that you’re Jewish and the jokes and comments don’t hold weight.

In 1993, I hired Lourdes, a 55-year-old immigrant from Colombia, to clean my house. I was working full time so her help was a big relief. Over the years, we grew close — attending family weddings and funerals and exchanging holiday gifts. It is a physically demanding job, and now, 20 years later, Lourdes, who is 75, is struggling. I clean the house after she’s been there and also do the “heavy” work such as cleaning the oven or cabinets. I’m also concerned about her safety when she walks up our steep stairs carrying laundry. How do I ethically end the business relationship without offending Lourdes? Plus, she still needs the income I provide.

Think about how you would hope to be treated after 20 years of working for a company. First and foremost, you are an employer. Let Lourdes know the depth of your respect for the work she has done and the impact she has had on your family. Then, offer the most generous severance package that you can. Remember, if you have been paying Lourdes off the books, she won’t collect any Social Security benefits. Some people pay a former employee’s salary for the rest of her life. If that isn’t possible, what is? Can you offer Lourdes a large lump sum or pay a percentage of her weekly wage for 5 years, 10 years or her lifetime? With the impact she’s had on your family, you won’t regret sending those checks. Also, if it’s true, let her know that she can list you as a recommendation for future employment and put out some feelers within your network for more age-appropriate gigs for her. After the business part, be clear that you want to continue a personal relationship as friends, if she wants to. Give Lourdes a couple weeks, then reach out to invite her to dinner or to a family event.

This is a common situation, says Danielle Feris, national director of Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Association, a network of employers of nannies, housecleaners and home attendants. So, be smart for next time, as you will likely hire another domestic worker. Danielle advises employers to talk with the workers they employ about creating a contract from the beginning, ensuring that the needs of both the worker and employer are represented, highlighting work expectations, hours, sick days, vacation and severance.

“So much about being Jewish is making our homes spaces of care and interdependence, like during Shabbat,” Danielle says. “We want what happens inside our homes to reflect our Jewish values.” With that in mind, set up the meeting you need to have with Lourdes and begin the next phase of your relationship.

Check out Hand in Hand on Facebook and thanks to Isis Smith, a fearless educator based in Mississippi, who chatted with me about black-Jewish relations in New York and the South.

The Leftist Ethicist is not intended as a replacement or substitute for financial, medical, legal or other professional advice. It’s just my opinion! What’s yours? Talk back in the comments! Send questions about ethical dilemmas to

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