I’ve been active in the Jewish Labor Committee since I arrived in Boston in 1988 as the Director of 1199, having arrived from Pittsburgh where I was a union organizer. Shortly thereafter, under the able direction of Herman Brown, former Director of the New England Jewish Labor Committee, a bunch of us would get together once a month in Don Siegel’s office on Beacon Street in downtown Boston, to study Torah with Rabbi David Starr, a local scholar and teacher. I loved these Torah study sessions – as we read through a portion of the Torah and connected it to the work we did. It was, for me, the purest form of engaging in the mission of the Jewish Labor Committee.
It’s in that spirit that I write this blog entry today. I look to this week’s Torah Portion for inspiration.
This parsha, Chayei Sarah is a tale of three parts: Sarah’s death, Isaac’s marriage, and Abraham’s late-in-life marriage and six-fold fatherhood. In each of this tripartite message are what I consider to be excellent messages for the union activist today.
The first part acknowledges the death of our Matriarch Sarah – Abraham’s wife and mother of Isaac. Curiously, in memorializing Sarah’s death, it concludes the sentence by saying she had a good life.
“A good life”? Seems like an awfully troubled life in many ways. Her son was almost slaughtered by her husband; she was unable to bear a child for a very long time – causing her immense anguish; her husband had sex and fathered a child with another woman. And, just for good measure, when things got tough during a long sojourn, her husband “offered” Sarah to the Egyptians in order to avoid potential conflict. What’s so good about that you might ask?
And yet, in many ways, many fundamental ways, it was a good life. She survived. She stayed married. Her union was eventually successful biologically, as she became a mother, literally giving birth to the Jewish people. She became a matriarch of the Jewish nation. Not too shabby a life at that.
As a union organizer, this causes me to pause and reflect. Perspective and attitude are very important. Things today are especially difficult for labor. But I can choose how I react. I can mope around, think about how tough things are in the labor movement today, and get discouraged. We are indeed facing very, very tough times. Since I began my work in the early 1980s, unions have declined immensely in their influence. And yet all is not bleak. There are many organizing successes even during these tough times. We still have huge advantages that many in earlier generations did not have. We have laws and financial resources to help me, large powerful organizations that are still fighting the good fight. This story of Sarah reminds me not to give up the fight. Though things for me as a union organizer are tough, I still live a good life.
The second part, Abraham helping select a wife for Isaac, is also instructive for me and other union organizers. It is not enough to be content with yourself and where you are in the world. We must always be looking to the next generation. Just as Abraham assisted his son in finding a wife and beginning his family on the right foot, so must we in the labor movement always be looking to the next generation to come along. We must not grasp our power and leadership roles so tightly that we fail to think about the future. How many unions have been undone by leaders who stayed too long, didn’t look to their successors, and then left their organization crippled when they were gone? Abraham focused on his successor and so should we as union leaders.
The parsha concludes with Abrahams late-in-life re-marriage and fathering of six children. This too provides a useful lesson to labor activists today. It should remind us that our vitality and contribution to the labor movement need not end when we get older. I am reminded of my friend and fellow union activist Enid Eckstein who just retired from her job with SEIU-1199. She’s not stopping her work, however, but continuing it in another way – going back to school to get a degree in health care administration and policy. Abraham’s fatherhood in his twilight years shows us that just because we are 65 or older and retiring from our careers doesn’t mean that our time for contribution is done. Just ask Jake Schlitt, who worked at the JLC in the 1950’s and who has been an active volunteer for 6 decades!
I get inspiration for my job as a union organizer from my favorite Jewish document, the Torah. Maybe it’s time to start up another Labor Torah Study. Interested?
Ashley Adams has been a union organizer, representative, and trainer for 31 years, since 2000 with the Massachusetts Teachers Association. He is also the past-president of Temple Hillel B’Nai Torah, in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. He has been a loyal member, and is a past-co-chair of the New England Jewish Labor Committee. He is happily married to a wonderful woman and is the proud father of two adult daughters. In his spare time he is a poker player and author, having written 'Winning 7-card Stud' (2003), 'Winning No Limit Hold’em' (2012) and 'Union Power Tools' (2012).