Why we have launched the Jewish Faithworkers Branch of the GMB

Hillel asks, “If not now, when?” - and with a cost of living crisis now is surely the time

August 10, 2022 12:21

Rabbis are clergy. They look after their community, their membership. They take on great responsibility to ensure members are supported and able to thrive. Their hours of work are hard to pin down. What is more, as clergy, rabbis don’t want to get too involved in financial matters. Rabbis are a righteous bunch and so some assume they should not be concerned with their pay and conditions.

We are two community rabbis, from different denominations, who felt differently. Of course rabbis, their spouses - who may work for the community - and other rabbinic staff are looked up to by their flock and looked to to model a moral and religious position. But we firmly believe that this should not mean the absence of a rabbinic voice when it comes to engaging with work conditions.

In other words, if we look after our communities, we also need to look after ourselves. There is a famous verse in the Torah in Leviticus 19 verse 18, “Love your neighbour as yourself”. One way of reading this is ‘Love your neighbour in the same way you love yourself’. One cannot properly love the other, if one does not have self-love as well.
We are therefore thrilled that this week, a new branch for Jewish Faith Workers was launched within GMB Union, one of Britain’s largest unions with about half a million members. This started as a conversation between Rabbi Mason and the Jewish Labour Movement a number of years ago. It was sadly becoming clear that Jewish workers, including rabbinic staff, could not remain in certain unions due to their wilful ignorance of the growing part played by antisemitism within the Labour Party.

Mobilising rabbis within our denominations, together with Rabbi Richard Jacobi, it became clear that there was an appetite for unionising. At the same time, it was clear that GMB was taking a strong stand in support of the Jewish community. This was evident at the branch launch this week and the tremendous encouragement from GMB General Secretary Gary Smith and London Regional Secretary Warren Kenny for rabbis and others to join.

We launched the Jewish Faith Workers Branch at GMB’s Hendon offices this week with powerful speeches, a kosher spread provided by the GMB, and in front of a wonderful union banner. This banner that hangs in GMB’s office is from the London Trouser Maker Union, a Jewish union which became part of GMB in the 1930s. It is testimony to a long and proud history of Jewish trade unionism. It felt like we were continuing this long tradition at this week’s branch launch.

And so the work will begin. A branch will form and with the support of GMB staff we will be able to help colleagues. This is not about party politics and affiliation. This is also not about creating conflict. This is about empowerment.

We are passionate that when rabbis, or any rabbinic staff member (and this will be an open definition) has issues with their conditions of employment, as Rabbi Jacobi mentioned at the launch, having the support of a union rep will give that individual so much more presence in the room. The union will be there to advise on changes of employment conditions, on disciplinary issues and more. We will be able to build a body of case work which we feel will only benefit the situation of rabbis across the UK.

We learn from the famous scholar Hillel in Ethics of the Fathers an important lesson in looking after ourselves. “If I am not for myself, who will be?”. We cannot expect others to look after us if we do not attempt to ourselves. But, he continues, “If I am for myself, what am I?”. To truly look after ourselves we need to work together with others, not alone. We need to learn how to organise together in order to allow our important work to flourish.

Hillel ends, “If not now, when?”. With a continuing cost of living crisis which will deepen and affect all rabbinic staff, now is surely the time for Jewish clergy to ensure that their voice is at the table.

Richard Jacobi is rabbi of East London and Essex Liberal Synagogue and David Mason is rabbi of Muswell Hill Synagogue

August 10, 2022 12:21

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