“Woe to him who treats his workers unjustly.” — Jeremiah 22:13
My freshmen and sophomore years, I worked for the Slifka Center for Jewish Life. I initially thought of my time at Slifka as a way of getting in touch with my oft-neglected Jewish roots. While I don’t practice Judaism, I do find solace in many aspects of my religion: the continual reflection, the music, the tradition and the community. I found community to be most important at Slifka. Most of my time was spent working in the kitchen. The staff members were incredible. A truly kind, down-to-earth, thoughtful group. A mixture of experiences, ideas and goals. During Shabbat dinners, they told me about their lives, and we talked about everything from President Donald Trump to which rabbi drank the most wine. I’d like to think that they thought of me as a friend, and I certainly thought of them as such.
In my sophomore year, as the staff members grew more comfortable with me, they began telling me the more negative aspects of Slifka. They pointed out rudeness in community members and thoughtlessness in students, both sadly expected in the service industry, even in a religious community. I experienced this, from casual rudeness to subtle comments about my class. But my minor inconveniences paled in comparison to what the mostly black staff dealt with gracefully on a daily basis.
Conditions did not improve. I was told of a rabbi who would pointedly ignore black members of the staff. Two of my friends and co-workers were fired without notice; one was fired mere days after returning from maternity leave. The staffers thought about job protection through unionization, but they were scared. With job security practically nonexistent — even for long-time workers — and an administration decidedly against worker protections, the staff members did no more than whisper — and only when they were sure we were alone.
Judaism teaches that community is a critical part of spiritual practice. We stand by friends and help strangers. I don’t pretend to be a scholar of theology, but my rabbi taught me the importance of valuing and respecting others, especially those worse off than myself. If community and altruism are central values of Judaism, then the administration of Slifka failed its staff in those months. Fear dominated the dining hall worker community, and I was unable to speak out for fear of worsening my friends’ precarious place.
So we went on, the staff members more tightlipped, afraid to say anything to students or faculty members. I watched my friends disappear, while they worked hard and accepted the casual rudeness of the entitled diner.
When I returned for junior year, I found that nearly every member of the staff had been replaced. I received an email asking if I would come back, but I ignored it. What was the purpose of returning to a community that didn’t value its members? I was given many explanations. The workers were given an option of coming back under a new administration. The workers were fired. The workers were offered part-time instead of full-time work to save Slifka money. Whatever the real reason, Slifka seemed to decide that its monetary interests were more important than its employees, and the community it had developed. To be clear, this represents a cost for Slifka students as well as workers. The students lose the communal aspect of dining. Strangers, hired part time perhaps to save Slifka money, serve them. My friends are gone, taking with them the community I knew. The workers that replaced them are hired to come in just scarcely enough for Slifka to avoid paying them inconvenient benefits.
The fundamental problem is that the dining hall staff has no security within the Slifka community. Poor treatment of staff plagues Yale’s dining halls and needs to be addressed everywhere, not just Slifka. But every other dining hall staff is unionized. It’s a part of ensuring the job security and benefits that are notably absent from Slifka. Slifka workers need the opportunity to unionize, and the administration should support, not hamper, that effort.
I haven’t returned to Slifka since it fired all my friends, and I don’t plan to so long as they fail their workers, refusing benefits, job security and unionization. I understand that kosher food is a necessity for some, but for those able, I urge you to join me. Boycott Slifka until Slifka upholds the values of Judaism in the workplace.
Dylan Hosmer-Quint is a junior in Trumbull College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .