Eating Your Values: An Interview with Dyonna Ginsburg

dyonna-ginsburg.jpgA few months back on The Jew & The Carrot, we posted about an amazing Israeli social justice organization called Bema’aglei Tzedek, which created an ethical seal for restaurants called Tav Chevrati (social seal).  The seal ensures that the restaurant provides basic rights to workers and also basic accessibility to customers with physical disabilities.  Started only a few years ago, the Tav Chevrati seal is now on a third of all restaurants in Jerusalem, and is expanding to Tel Aviv and other cities.

I recently had a chance to speak with Bema’aglei Tzedek’s Executive Director, Dyonna Ginsburg (pictured at left) and here her thoughts on the socio-economic gaps in Israeli society, the power of public pressure on the Israeli government, and why she only eats in restaurants with the Tav Chevrati seal.

Enjoy the interview, below the jump!

How did you first get involved with Bema’aglei Tzedek?

I made aliya from New York 7 years ago and had been working with a bunch of Jewish educational organizations.  Shortly after Bema’aglei Tzedek’s inception in 2004, I read a couple of articles about the org and became intrigued – so I contacted them about getting involved.

My initial involvement was with the Tav Chevrati (social seal) program.  I was convinced at the time (and still am) that the American/English speaking population in Israel – people there for short term service or longer term programs – were a critical part of the success of this initiative.

The concept of “the power of the consumer” and the idea of social change both resonate with American audiences.  And restaurateurs often care more about what the American tourist population thinks than what locals think.  Getting involved with Tav Chevrati seemed like a way for someone with an American accent to affect change even more than their Israeli peers.

After volunteering for a while, I was invited to join the board.  Then, about three months ago, I made a switch to a paid position as Executive Director  We have a staff of 10, about 50 freelance paid educators, and dozens of volunteers who help carry out our work.  I am the only non-native Israeli on the staff!

Early on in your work with Bema’aglei Tzedek, you decided you would only eat at Tav Chevrati certified restaurants – even when there were only five in the entire country!  How did you come to that decision?

I like to think of myself as a person with integrity, and I felt that if I was speaking on behalf of this initiative, I had to live its ideals in my own life – so that’s why I made a decision very early on to only eat at restaurants with Tav Chevrati certification.  It was a pretty significant choice because my food choices were very limited.  It has changed the way I view my work and a slew of other things because every time I got together with business colleagues or friends, I am taking a very public stance about my food choices.

Why does Israel need a seal like Tav Chevrati?

Israeli labor law is actually pretty progressive. With accessibility access, it is behind North America, but there are definitely some laws in place. However, there is a big gap between the existing laws and enforcement.

The three underlying principles of Tav Chevrati are:

1. It meets a real need.  In this case exploitation of workers, and lack of access to people with disabilities in Israeli society are both real needs.
2. It ties into the intrinsically Jewish concept that what you eat is significant – and that eating can be transformed into a holy act.  Labor laws are also deeply entrenched into Jewish writings.
3. It can empower many different people to take concrete action.  It doesn’t take a significant time or monetary investment – and it not only improves the lot of workers, but has potential to change the paradigm on these issues.

One of the most important aspects of Tav Chevrati is generating a public awareness campaign in parallel to our efforts to keep this up and make sure it’s enforced.  Our organization believes that to create change, you have to be able to create enough public pressure that the average citizen will care, and begin to make changes in their own lives.  Then hopefully, at a certain point, it moves beyond just being grassroots enforced, and the government truly begins to enforce these laws.

So how do you accomplish those goals?
We have volunteers who make spot checks at our certified restaurants, and people going out to approach new restaurants or work with ones who have reached out to us.

Then, we also do a variety of traditional and non traditional marketing to spread public awareness. We publicize on all of the Israeli restaurant sites and in local papers.  We run target campaigns for the community and publish coupon booklets for restaurants with the certificate.  For example, when the GA conference recently came to town, we published special coupon books in English, that were targeted to participants.  We’ve also published special coupon books for Israeli university students.

Additionally, we run informational parlor meetings in homes, schools, and synagogues and have partnered with a local film school to produce film clips that appear on YouTube.  And we run events in our certified restaurants – all in order to create public awareness.

Have we reached a point where everyone who enters a restaurant is aware of the Tav Chevrati seal? Not yet – but we’re growing quickly.

What are the criteria for getting the seal, and how does a restaurant get one?

The restaurant has to grant access and service for people with physical disabilities.  They have to be able to get in the door, get to a table, and be served.  We also supply braille menus.  The seal does not include whether or not a person with a physical disability has easy access to a restroom.

In the realm of labor laws, workers have to be getting paid minimum wage, get paid on time and overtime, and have to be reimbursed for travel expenses, requisite vacation days etc.  In both case, we are talking about the bare minimum of legally mandated rights.

Tell me a little bit about your volunteers.  Who are they and how do they generally get involved?

Our volunteers are generally Israeli University students.  Most (though not all) students receive stipends through a variety of Israeli organizations and are committed for a certain number of hours a week to volunteer on our behalf.  They span the religious and political spectrum – and include people who are interested in the intersection between Jewish life and social justice/social action.

One of our goals for coming year in Jerusalem is to focus on educating and raising awareness in the older population of established Jerusalemites.  For that, we will need to train their peers (other people in the 50+ category) to help lead the charge on this.

What exactly do volunteers do when they are at a restaurant? Whom do they speak with?  How often do they go?

We try to establish a fine line between having volunteers ascertain a restaurant’s compliance, while at the same time, serving as a friendly face or resource to the workers. They can’t just be cold bureaucrats with one mission.

During a typical spot check, there is a questionnaire that Bema’aglei Tzedek put together of things that could be suspect at a restaurant. The volunteer comes in, meets with workers and waiting staff, and asks them questions. If there are serious red flags, then we ask to see pay slips.  If problems arise, then we speak to restaurant proprietor.  Our goal is to go to every one of our restaurants every month to 6 weeks.  It’s a lot, and it doesn’t always happen – but in order for the seal to have  any significance, there has to be consistent upkeep.

Do the restaurant proprietors generally comply when a volunteer comes in, or have you had a trouble with that?

Restaurant proprietors agree in advance to help enable our volunteers. Sometimes there is resistance, or the restaurant is super –busy.  It’s not as if the door is always wide open.  But they sign onto a document at the beginning saying that they agree the criteria and are willing to comply. They get a framed copy of the Tav Chevrati certificate, which they hang on the wall, and a sticker to put on the door.

It’s important to note that because they are fully on-board, there’s nothing done without their knowledge.  But that doesn’t mean the proprietors are ideologically committed to what we’re doing. Most are doing it for their own economic advantage.  They aren’t necessarily part of this because they are committed to workers rights or accessibility – though some are. They believe that they will generate income from additional consumers who care about these issues.

Are there any language barriers between volunteers and workers – or other cultural differences that make the job more challenging for volunteers?

One of our goals is to diversify our volunteer corps, and find people who speak more of the languages the workers speak – particularly Arabic and Russian.  We train volunteers to be aware of cultural sensitivities, but language can be an issue.  Still, our questions are designed so that the same type of question is asked in several formats – so that if they can’t understand the first time, it is asked again in a slightly different way.

What feedback do you get from customers?  Are they satisfied with the seal, or do they urge you to expand it in anyway?

There is no end to what could be added onto the certificate.  And there is no end to the suggestions people make!  With all of our programs, we try to go after two things – issues that are really a need, and issues that are measurable, concrete and grounded in Israeli law.

I don’t want to preclude the adding of additional criteria to our certificate – but when we think of expansion, we think more in terms of saturation point of particular location.  For example, at what point in time do you say, “Jerusalem is a success,” and move on to a new location?  There’s also a question of saturation point in a particular industry.  When do you say goodbye to the food industry and go onto other industries?

It’s possible that gas station attendants could meet both of those criteria.  Or hotel workers might be a next step.

If you could describe your vision for a just food system, how would you describe it?

From the Bema’aglei Tzedek standpoint, food is a more of the means, than an end in itself.  We only tackle a very small portion of the issue – the people preparing food at the most immediate level.  But, as you know, there are a whole slew of other issues that we don’t even aspire to tackle.  So it’s much easier for me to envision fair labor practice or accessibility issues in Israeli society as a whole.

I think the ultimate success of the Tav Chevrati is to put itself out of business. Our goal is to bring these issues to the public attention in such a way that we no longer need to certify restaurants, because they will be part and parcel of what a restaurant does, and will be enforced by government because Israeli citizens will have demanded it.

As for Israeli society as a whole, if you look at Jewish sources throughout the ages, and also early Zionist thinkers and what they envisioned for the state, it was a society based on universal socio-economic values that were inspired by Jewish tradition. I think my ultimate goal for Israeli society and labor laws would be to have a society where people who are working full days can support their families with dignity.

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