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The Rat And The Rabbi

The Rat And The Rabbi

‘God,” says Rabbi Avi Weiss, arguably the highest-profile Jewish activist in the country, “has a funny sense of humor. They’re protesting in front of my shul.”

They are members of District Council 9 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades — and a nine-foot-high inflatable rat — who last week protested outside the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, where non-union workers were installing windows as part of the synagogue’s yearlong expansion project. Unions often set up the rats in front of construction sites where non-union workers are being used.

The picketers claimed that the workers are receiving less than the “area standard” wages and benefits set by the union and employers in New York the chief contractor at the work site, hired the workers as sub-contractors. Their non-union status presents a moral tug for the Orthodox congregation, which under Rabbi Weiss has played a prominent role in myriad political and religious issues, and for Uri L’Tzedek, a social justice organization whose founders have studied at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the rabbinical training school Rabbi Weiss founded in 1999.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, an Uri L’Tzedek co-founder, said he asked Hebrew Institute officials about the pay and working conditions of the window workers there and was assured that the chief contractor is “fully compliant with labor laws.” He says he has no complaints about the hiring of non-union workers. “I lean towards the pro-union stance,” he says, but adds that “I sympathize” with the need of Jewish organizations to reduce costs “in a time of recession.”

Uri L’Tzedek, Rabbi Yanklowitz says, has not taken an official position on the use of union-only employees — only on pay and working conditions. “Having a union is not a black-and-white issue,” he says.

Rabbi Weiss, who has taken part in scores of protest rallies around the world, says the picketers told him “they have no argument” with his synagogue. The protest, he says, is aimed against Diversified Glass. Officials with the firm did not return a Jewish Week phone call requesting comment.

Rabbi Weiss calls the firm “a very reputable contractor” that has worked on several other synagogues in the tri-state area in recent years. “They’re very trustworthy,” observing applicable laws about “wages and worker safety,” Rabbi Weiss says.

The expansion itself, a four-story addition that began in the summer of 2008 and is set to be completed by the start of the High Holy Days next week, “has been built by union workers,” the rabbi says.

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