Reprinted from "The Jewish Advocate" March 19, 2015
I am looking forward to hosting a seder once again. Family and friends will gather around our family table, extended beyond the dining room to accommodate the crowd, and the table will be filled with two seder plates, several types of charoset, extra matzah, flowers, and of course, my mother’s fine china. My daughter and her husband will travel from Chicago, my son will come in from Philadelphia, and all of us will spend many joyful and frantic hours cooking and preparing. All this, on top of the pre-Pesach spring cleaning!When I was growing up, my mother prepared the meal and my father led the seder. Both of them enjoyed their roles, taking pleasure in engaging our many guests in questions, conversation and multiple courses of good food. In our house today, the family shares in preparing the meal, while I lead the seder.
I discovered that one cannot lead the seder and serve the meal as well. While my guests are happy to assist, I want them to enjoy the evening at the table. How do families manage these large, festive meals when the roles have become blurred?
I learned that having someone help with the meal and the clean-up takes pressure off of everyone. Plus, our helper, who is not Jewish, usually participates in much of the seder and learns about the Jewish practices. It’s a win-win-win. Since the kernel of the story of Pesach is about liberation from oppression of all kinds, I am particularly mindful of how we treat our paid seder helpers. Our liberation story provides a foundation for the ethical treatment of all workers. The 2012 national Domestic Workers Alliance determined that there are 2.5 million domestic workers in the US. Most receive no paid sick time and no overtime pay. A quarter of them get no more than five hours of sleep a night. Many suffer threats and verbal abuse. They work long hours with no breaks. In addition, live-in workers live in fear of losing their home when they lose their jobs. Fearful of being jobless and homeless, live-in workers are reluctant to ask for a pay raise or a night off.
This year, we have an extra incentive to remember to treat domestic workers (including nannies, cleaners, and companions who work in the home) with dignity. On April 1, just two days prior to the first seder, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights goes into effect in Massachusetts.
Who is affected by this new law? If you employ a domestic worker who works within your private home, you should become familiar with the new requirements. A “domestic worker” is someone who is not employed by an agency but works directly for the private individual, as a house cleaner or housekeeper, a nanny, caretaker, someone who cooks or does laundry or other household services for your family or guests. Your worker needs be a regular employee, not an occasional babysitter.
This new law will require some adjustment, as any change does. But as we have learned in other industries, treating workers with dignity benefits the employer too. These changes will create a more positive work relationship, which will have an immediate impact on the nanny’s relationship with children or a companion’s relationship with an elder or person who is ill or disabled. It’s a win-win-win for the employer, the worker, and those we love and care about.
For more on the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights click http://www.domesticworkers.org/mass-bill-of-rights
Rabbi Barbara Penzner, of Temple Hillel B’nai Torah in West Roxbury, is the co-chair of the New England Jewish Labor Committee.