1. Your mission statement speaks of “empowering the next generation of young Israelis to engage their Jewish identity and become powerful agents of social change.” How are you finding the response from young Israelis to you call for action?
The cynics among us point to an Israeli society that is moving away from a collective identity to radical individualism, and lament the bygone days of a pioneering spirit. My experience, however, is very different. On a day to day basis, I encounter hundreds of young Israelis who care deeply about shaping our society and are willing to give of themselves to create better and more just communities. In the early days of the state, we needed pioneers to build the country’s physical infrastructure. Nowadays, we need pioneers to build the country’s spiritual and ethical infrastructure. Many young Israelis, religious and secular alike, are looking for opportunities to return to their Jewish roots, and in particular to Jewish learning, as a source of inspiration for the pursuit of justice.
2. Your Tav Chevrati is “a seal of approval granted free of charge to restaurants and other businesses that respect the legally-mandated rights of their employees and are accessible to people with disabilities.” Can you describe the typical encounter you have with a business owner when you first raise this issue with them?
The Tav Chevrati has succeeded in reaching a tipping point in Jerusalem, where over a third of restaurants and cafes bear our certificate. In Jerusalem, there is now a waiting list of restaurants who have turned to us and are currently awaiting our approval. For the most part, these restaurants are interested in the Tav Chevrati not because they are more ethical than others; rather, because they understand the economic power of the certificate. As such, it is not really accurate to speak of our “first raising the issue” with restaurant proprietors. Instead, the restaurant owners are the ones who first raise the issue with us. One chef, who is the co-owner of three exclusive restaurants in Jerusalem, recently told us that, even though he doesn’t personally connect to the ideas underlying the Tav Chevrati, one out of two of his customers demands to see the Tav Chevrati. In his own words: “If you can’t beat them, join them!” This chef-owner, like 90% of the business proprietors who have received the certificate, had to make concrete changes – changes that cost him money – in order to abide by our certificate and its legally-mandated standards.
3. Israelis speak about the divide between the secular and the orthodox communities, but it seems that you work in both worlds, and try to combine them. Can you share the challenges and successes you are experiencing in that effort?
Bema’aglei Tzedek is unique on the Israeli scene, as our staff, volunteers and target populations transcend religious and political lines. I often say with pride that, in the last Knesset elections, every person on staff voted for a different political party. This reflects the true diversity of our activists. And, yet we manage to sit around the same table and find common ground, rallying around issues that should be consensus – fair labor practices, accessibility to people with disabilities, etc. – but all too often are not.
Bema’aglei Tzedek believes that a Jewish State is not just about public ritual observances, such as the fact that there is no public transportation on Shabbat or that Jewish holidays are official state holidays, but that it is also about the ethical fiber of this society – about taking care of the “orphan, widow and stranger in our midst.”
4. How can Diaspora Jews be involved in your efforts?
If you ask a typical restaurant proprietor in Jerusalem which is a more important target population – local Israeli customers or the tourist population – the vast majority will respond: tourists. As such, the Tav Chevrati is the one initiative I can think of in which someone, who is visiting Israel, doesn’t know a word of Hebrew, and knows little about the culture, can make an even greater impact than an Israeli peer just by buying a cup of coffee and telling the waiter that he or she came because of the Tav Chevrati. Jews from abroad, therefore, have an important role to play in the ultimate success of this homegrown Israeli initiative. For a list of Tav-certified opportunities or to find out other volunteer or donation opportunities, check out our website www.mtzedek.org.il