Working in Jerusalem: Seal of approval

Providing handicap access and complying with the labor laws is anything but commonplace among local restaurants. Which is where Bema’aglei Tzedek’s Hatav Hahevrati comes in.

311_Yael Assor (photo credit: Mark Rebacz)
311_Yael Assor
(photo credit: Mark Rebacz)
For 25-year-old Yael Assor, creating a more just society is just another day at the office.
A graduate of the Hebrew University with a BA in sociology, anthropology and psychology, Assor is the Jerusalem coordinator for Bema’aglei Tzedek’s seal of approval. The certificate, known in Hebrew as Hatav Hahevrati, is part of a campaign to bring a higher standard of ethics to eating establishments in such spheres as employees’ rights and public access.
Bema’aglei Tzedek, or Circles of Justice, is a nonprofit organization founded in 2004, which aims to empower the public to become agents of social change and create a more just society inspired by Jewish values.
Assor coordinates the Jerusalem branch of its flagship project and oversees some 150 businesses that have the certificate – one-third of all the city’s restaurants, coffee shops and bars.
She got involved with Bema’aglei Tzedek as a student after hearing about the certificate. “My friends and I received a list of approved restaurants, and we thought that was a cool idea,” she recalls.
Assor first began working as an educator for Bema’aglei Tzedek, teaching teens and adults about the difference between tzedek (justice) and tzedaka (charity), and informing people of the opportunity they have as individuals and as a community to effect change. “We told people about going only to restaurants that have the certificate and about attending demonstrations for workers’ rights or promoting handicap accessibility.”
At the same time, Assor volunteered as a spot-checker, investigating local restaurants to ensure those that have the certificate or are applying for one meet the standards of Bema’aglei Tzedek.
This led to her current position, where she is in contact with business owners and employees, coordinates volunteer activity and works on publicizing the certificate.
Bema’aglei Tzedek’s two core standard requirements for eating establishments – being accessible to the disabled and adhering to the labor laws – are anything but commonplace. “The field of labor law is very ambiguous, and most of the laws are not really suited for this kind of work [in restaurants]. There are a lot of gray areas,” she says. “Sadly enough, most places don’t even follow the law, so if we had to hold them to a higher standard, it could be that no one would get the certificate.”
How is she treated as an employee? “I get paid an average salary – I’m not here for the paycheck,” she says with a smile.
But this is no nine-to-five job. “It’s all day and all night long. You have to do this job with a lot of passion, and it means you have to care,” she says. “It’s important for me to let my volunteers know that they can contact me at any hour of the day, and for restaurant workers to know they can phone me whenever they need. I have very flexible hours.”
But beyond the long hours, there are also emotional and moral difficulties for Assor.
“The most difficult part is when I see sad cases of workers and people that we need to take care of. Sometimes I just can’t believe the stories I hear,” she says. “The most horrible thing for me is when I see underage children – under 15 – who are at work in the morning instead of in school. It makes me cry.”
But this poses a dilemma for Assor. “Even if they get fired, they’ll just go somewhere else to work. And this owner wants the certificate, and you know that your decision will mean the child won’t keep his job.”
Another example she cites is that of immigrant workers and refugees from the Sudan who want to work seven-day weeks, despite its unlawfulness.
“They live in an insane reality where they don’t know if they’ll be deported tomorrow, and they’ve been through so much. They finally find a job, but I can’t give the owner a certificate unless he makes them work fewer days.”
But the issue is resolved, even if it may not be pleasant. “While it may be okay for this specific worker, it can evolve into the norm where all workers need to work seven days a week to stay competitive. So we need to think in more general terms about what society needs, even if in this one instance the repercussions are unclear,” says Assor.
Beyond the sad stories, however, Assor’s work gives her a lot to smile about. “I really like reaching out to people and explaining to workers about their rights or telling people how they can make a difference in how society will look.”
Nevertheless, Assor has her doubts as to how long she can continue at this pace. “This job is a life job; it’s very intense. And while I believe that for the rest of my life, I will be involved in struggles and be an activist, I hope I will have the strength and the energy to keep working as I do today.”
Assor says she never imagined she would be involved in this kind of work. “I come from a very secular home, and one of Bema’aglei Tzedek’s objectives is to make society better in regard to Jewish values and tradition.”
She recalls learning for the first time about a different side of Judaism: “When I started my involvement in Bema’aglei Tzedek, I didn’t know that Judaism could be pluralistic and humanistic and strive for justice. I grew up thinking of Judaism as mostly restrictions. So I feel that what we are doing here is more than just workers’ rights, etc. It’s also about emphasizing the importance of justice within the Jewish tradition, which is something that I felt was absent while I was growing up.”
Assor says that demonstrating the central role justice plays in Judaism is a meaningful message for the Israeli society as a whole. “For a long time I tried to figure out what it meant for me to be a Jew. When I discovered Bema’aglei Tzedek, I felt I could find a new way to relate to Judaism – through the lens of social justice.”