With so many social causes to champion, it may seem curious that Jewish groups have worked so hard to raise the minimum wage here. After all, Jews are more likely to be found in the higher socioeconomic layers of society, the stereotype goes.
But hold on, says Jane Yamaykin of Takoma Park, who came to America from Minsk, Belarus, in 1989 when she was 8 years old.
Her parents came to this country with two young children and $300. They immediately began working multiple jobs on various shifts to make ends meet. She hardly remembers seeing them, calling herself and her two-year-old brother latch key kids.
Eventually, both Yamaykin’s parents found good jobs in the computer industry. “It meant a huge difference for our family,” she said, noting that her little brother “was able to have the childhood I was not,” participating in karate and Boy Scouts.
Rather than being bitter, Yamaykin is very thankful, especially so at Passover. That is when she leafs through many Haggadot written in the 1970s that include special prayers calling on Jews to be allowed to leave Russia.
“Part of it is paying back,” she said of her efforts as a community organizer to get the minimum wage raised. “I know that it is possible to create social change.”
As co-chair for volunteers with Jewish United for Justice and a senior development associate with AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, Yamaykin has a passion for helping families who work hard and still struggle.
People tend to think those who don’t work live in poverty and those who do are okay, and that just isn’t true, she stressed.
“We did have food stamps. We did have benefits from safety nets. We used them, and that’s the way it should happen,” but even with all that, making $7.25 an hour is just not enough, she said.
Helping others is a core social Jewish value, noted Katie Ashmore, a community organizer with JUFJ. People need a level playing field, and they need to be able to have time to be with their families, too. The idea of rest and observing Shabbat is integral to Judaism, she noted.
Working side by side with Latinos, unions and other community groups also is important, Ashmore said.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, too, is very involved in trying to raise the minimum wage. “It’s absolutely a Jewish value. The Torah calls for fair treatment of workers,” said Barbara Weinstein, associate director.
“This is an issue about economic justice,” she stressed.
The work of both Jewish and non-Jewish groups clearly is paying off. Montgomery County council just voted to increase the minimum wage gradually to $11.50 an hour by 2017. An increase to $8.40 will go into effect on Oct. 1, 2014.
A minimum wage increase was also adopted in Prince Georges County. The D.C. council, on first reading, unanimously supported the Minimum Wage Act, which also calls for the rate to rise to $11.50 by 2017. That act must be approved again Dec. 17 for it to become law.
Still, the work continues. JUFJ currently is conducting a phone bank on the minimum wage as well as a call to mandate paid sick days for restaurant workers. Those involved will be paid $15 an hour.