Author Archives: Jillian Berman

 

The Dark Truth About Passover

Starting Monday at sundown, Jews across America will sit down to their Seders and revel in their liberation from Egyptian pharaohs thousands of years ago. But for the past several decades, celebrating Passover has often meant submitting to a different overlord: people looking to make a buck.

There are at least two major factors driving up prices for observant Jews this time of year. Producing kosher food that meets the holiday’s strict requirements is costly. And scripture warns that Jews who break those rules will be banished from the “world to come,” a post-messianic utopia. That, along with all the cultural trappings that go with the holiday, including new suits and thorough house-cleanings, makes for a captive customer base — one ripe for price gouging.

mark green nycNew York City mayoral candidate Mark Green, second from right, gets a big laugh on the steps of City Hall with Assemblywoman Aurelia Greene, D-Bronx, third from left, and other members of the New York State Assembly Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2001. Green spearheaded a campaign as head of NYC’s consumer affairs department to stop Passover price gouging.

“Kosher-for-Passover food would be jacked up for the holiday, which is like overcharging for heat generators in an ice storm,” said Mark Green, radio host and former head of the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs, of the years of some of the worst abuses in New York City, the 1980s and 1990s. “It’s unfair and implicitly coercive.”

In the three months leading up to Passover in 1990, the price of kosher chicken and whitefish (a popular gefilte fish ingredient) spiked 4 and 9 percent respectively, according to a New York Times article at the time.

In the late 1980s, matzo purveyor Manischewitz — which was purchased by an arm of private-equity firm Bain Capital on Tuesday — was allegedly part of the problem.

In secret meetings at kosher delis and motels, Manischewitz executives reportedly convinced competitors to fix prices on matzo for five Passovers straight. The company pleaded no contest to the price-fixing allegations and was fined $1 million in 1991.

Grocers also regularly gouged in those days, consumer advocates claimed. As Green put it in 1990, according to the Times: ”Before Thanksgiving the price of turkey and cranberry sauce go down. But before Passover, they go up. Call it the fifth question of the Seder: Why are Passover prices higher than all other prices?”

manischewitz

Spurred by complaints from residents and religious groups, the Department of Consumer Affairs started using surveys to monitor prices at grocery stores in the lead-up to Passover. The goal was to discourage grocers from artificially hiking prices by making the data available to the public.

The pressure worked, to a degree. Eleven years after the city began surveying stores, supermarkets reported the largest price drop in history for the basket of Passover goods between early February and late March, the Times reported. But shoppers told the paper they still felt pinched.

“It’s all very expensive, but what can you do?” one told the Times. “It’s Passover. You do what you’ve got to do.”

Prices have largely stabilized in recent years thanks to increased competition, according to Menachem Lubinsky, the editor in chief of Kosher Today, which monitors the price of key Passover staples every year. For example, these days you can buy kosher-for-Passover boneless chicken cutlets at online purveyors for $14.99, just $5 more than the non-kosher version of a similar product.

Thanks to many grocery stores and companies like Amazon getting into the business, it’s easy now to shop around for matzo and pay as little as $1.50 a box. But a time-strapped customer, or one who doesn’t know about comparison shopping, could still walk into your local grocer and fork over several dollars more for a box.

New York State Assemblyman Luis Sepulveda is sponsoring a bill that would punish retailers that jack up prices unfairly.

“There are still complaints about it,” Sepulveda said. “I have a lot of friends that are of the Jewish faith who have talked to me about this problem.”

Just a few years ago, carwashes in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood allegedly charged Jewish customers 25 to 50 percent more than others for a thorough car cleaning before the holiday.

“It’s still a very expensive holiday,” said Borough Park native Ezra Friedlander, who runs a public relations firm. “It’s only eight days, but it’s a lot of consumerism.”

On the other hand, Joe Regenstein, a professor of food science at Cornell University who has consulted with companies on kosher products, argues that Passover price gouging these days may be more a matter of perception than reality. In the 1980s, during what consumer advocates say were some of the worst years for abuses, Regenstein served on a commission under then-New York Governor Mario Cuomo that looked for Passover price gouging and struggled to find any evidence of it. Holiday prices are clearly higher, he said, but those increases may be legitimate.

To get Passover certification, kosher purveyors must perform a thorough cleaning, often supervised by more than one religious authority. It’s not uncommon for manufacturers to have to retool operations to meet Passover standards. For example, Empire Chicken of Mifflintown, Pa., a major purveyor of kosher chicken, has to switch to a “kosher for Passover” feed for its poultry several months before the holiday. These extra costs get passed on to consumers, said Regenstein.

passover prices

“Yes, you can show in some cases that products are more expensive, but what the heck does that mean?” said Regenstein. “That’s not price gouging unless you can prove that they’re manipulating these prices.””

Still, Regenstein doesn’t deny that the incentive exists for price manipulation. Companies like Manischewitz generate a big share of their revenue around the holiday and would benefit from squeezing as much as possible out of it.

Manischewitz’s new private equity owners have a plan that may take some of the pressure off Passover to serve as a crucial sales window. They mean to sell the idea of “kosher” to non-religious consumers who are nonetheless careful about what they eat.

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Corporate America’s Long, Dark History Of Evangelizing At Work

Hobby Lobby’s overt Christianity shocked Charity Carney when she started working at a Texas outpost of the crafts chain a few years ago. Most staff meetings began with a prayer, Carney learned. You could always find a Bible in the break room, she said.

“It was just assumed that you would be a believer if you worked there,” said Carney who left the company after a few months and is now a historian, studying the rise of megachurches at Western Governors University. “I don’t think anybody would be persecuted for not believing, but there was an assumption in place.” She said she eventually got used to it.

Hobby Lobby’s religious bent was thrown into the spotlight this week when the Oklahoma City-based crafts chain argued its case against Obamacare’s so-called contraception mandate before the Supreme Court. The company, which employs 16,000 workers in its more than 550 stores, maintains that the law’s requirement that health insurance cover IUDs and morning-after pills violates its religious rights.

hobby lobby founders
Hobby Lobby’s founders leave the Supreme Court after oral arguments Tuesday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Though the idea of a company with an overt religious commitment — and the belief that contraception is a religious issue — may seem surprising in 2014, there’s a long-standing American tradition of mixing religion and work going back more than 100 years.

“Religion has been a part of corporate America for quite some time,” said Darren Grem, a historian at the University of Mississippi who studies the intersection of business, religion and politics. The Hobby Lobby case “is a new conflict over a relatively old issue.”

In the early 20th century, Southern textile mills built churches and hired pastors in company-built towns. Employees heard sermons on the value of working, abstaining from alcohol, and marital fidelity. Companies believed these so-called Christian values would help maintain a stable workforce in several ways.

“As you might expect, the company preacher preached the line that encouraged employees not to join unions,” said Jarod Roll, also a history professor at the University of Mississippi and the author of Spirit of Rebellion: Labor and Religion in the New Cotton South.

mill town
A late 19th century mill located in Columbus, Ga.

As the Evangelical right wing movement started to take shape in the latter half of the century, religious entrepreneurship became more common. “There’s a long history of Evangelicals using workplaces as a place where they preach,” said Grem.

Indeed, when Southern Baptist Cecil B. Day originally founded Days Inn in the 1970s, he banned the sale of alcohol in the hotel’s rooms and put a Bible in each one. He also encouraged in-office voluntary prayer meetings.

Even Walmart’s workplace culture incorporates a certain sense of “Christian duty serviceship,” said Jarod Roll, a history professor at the University of Mississippi. The company “has an economic base in communities that are religious, and the workforce is deeply religious,” he said.

days inn bible
An open Bible in a Days Inn in Mississippi. Flickr/damian entwistle

There were times in history that a religious dynamic worked against management. During fights for better wages and working conditions throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, employees often wielded Bible phrases and religious notions of morality, Roll said.

The fact that Hobby Lobby and other religious companies likely employ some workers who don’t believe is part of the reason asserting religion at work has suddenly become so controversial, Roll said. That’s a marked change from the past: The textile mills of the early 20th century were staffed by an almost 100 percent Protestant workforce; big factories in Detroit or Chicago during the same period were also largely staffed by Catholics, he said.

Today, it’s much less likely that a secular business would have employees of all the same religion. In addition, an increased government focus on preventing discrimination as a result of the civil rights movement has produced a body of legal rulings that protect employees’ religious rights at work.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits secular businesses from discriminating on the basis of religion. Before that, “if you were a Protestant and you didn’t want to hire or promote a Catholic there was little legal recourse for that Catholic employee,” said Grem.

Those rules are largely enforced through employee complaints or lawsuits.

At issue in the Hobby Lobby case, however, is whether complying with a new law, Obamacare, gets in the way of the company’s owners expressing their religious beliefs. The high court will decide whether the Green family, the Southern Baptist owners of Hobby Lobby, can refuse on religious grounds to cover certain contraceptive devices for their employees as mandated by the Affordable Care Act. The company is targeting intrauterine devices (IUDs) and the Plan B pill.

plan b pill
Plan B pills. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Carney said that in her experience at Hobby Lobby, workers who didn’t believe in the company’s Christian values had reason to just take it in stride. Part of Hobby Lobby’s Christian corporate culture also means that the company pays its workers more money than similar retail jobs.

The company starts workers at nearly double the minimum wage, according to the Associated Press. Hobby Lobby also offers employees health, dental and retirement benefits. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

“They pay good wages,” said Carney, who was with Hobby Lobby only for a few months before she quit the store because she felt her manager forced her to work too many hours one day. Carney said she was only able to leave Hobby Lobby because she had already scored her current gig in academia.

“Everybody was glad to have the job, we wanted to keep the job so we didn’t rock the boat.”

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The Idea Behind Work-Life Balance Is As Old As The Bible

Mathew Hoffman doesn’t remember one of the biggest milestones of his career, because he wasn’t there when it happened.

One Friday three decades ago, Hoffman, then 27 years old and a newly minted lawyer, was growing increasingly agitated as he waited to hear the outcome of his first-ever jury trial. Every second the jury deliberated, the sun lowered in the afternoon sky. Finally, Hoffman got up to leave. As he walked towards the door, the surprised judge reminded him that if he left, he wouldn’t get to see the jury come back. For a moment Hoffman felt conflicted, but he just kept walking.

As an observant Jew, Hoffman had to race home in time for the Jewish sabbath — a weekly break from work and other activities that starts Friday night at sundown and lasts for the next 25 hours.

Now 59 and with three more decades of career success behind him, Hoffman says he doesn’t regret his decision to leave that first trial early. He’s picked Shabbat over work every week since. “Life is way more important than winning my next case,” he said.

For most professionals, the idea of leaving work at a crucial moment seems almost impossible. Yet a sizable number of American Jews — approximately 500,000 — who observe Shabbat say no to their jobs for 25 hours each week, setting a hard deadline to leave the office on Friday and turn off their phones and computers. This religious commitment to unplugging is now inspiring secular Jews and non-Jews alike to take a regular break from the always-on demands of the connected workplace.

Traditional observers of Shabbat use the day to study, go to synagogue and eat ritual meals. But Americans are so desperate to detach that rabbis are tapping into the impulse as a way to sell Shabbat to the less observant, said Jonathan Sarna, the director of the Jewish Professional Center at Brandeis University.

“Rabbis are now more able to justify the idea of the sabbath in terms of its impact on stress and mental health and disconnecting,” he said.

After he spent several months running himself ragged to start his business a few years ago, Dan Rollman found himself inspired by religious Jews’ commitment to unplug. Rollman, who is Jewish but not strictly observant, joined with a group of friends and vowed to once a week detach from technology, spend time with family and friends and go outside. Their so-called Sabbath Manifesto caught on, sparking a movement of thousands who commit to turn off their devices at least one day per year.

“I’m saying I’ve worked really hard this week and now I need a day in which no matter how busy or stressed I am, this is my day off,” Rollman explained. “It’s a chance to recharge my batteries and really embrace the concept of the sabbath that goes back centuries.”

Observant Muslims and Christians similarly follow the Bible’s instruction to take a day off from work, but their sabbaths — which take place on Friday and Sunday, respectively — don’t necessarily require a break from electronics.

Joe Lieberman kept the Jewish Shabbat during his decades-long career as a U.S. Senator from Connecticut and on the campaign trail running for vice president. He said the weekly ritual helped him function the other six days he was booked solid with commitments.

“I don’t know how I could be a U.S. senator and not observe the sabbath,” Lieberman, who wrote a book on the topic, said in a recent interview.

There were times he had to choose between his job and his observance, he said, and the results were mixed. Because driving is prohibited on Shabbat, he remembers walking the 4.5 miles from his house to the Capitol on several Saturdays to participate in tense votes.

But he typically shut himself off from politics on Shabbat, letting those trying to reach him leave a message on his voicemail. “It really creates a sanctuary, which has a great feeling in itself,” he said.

Mitchell Rich, a New York-based consultant, offered a similar reflection, noting that without Shabbat he’d have no idea “that I’m completely addicted to my phone.”

During the week, Rich says he’s sometimes distracted from family dinners because he’s busy responding to emails as they come in, no matter the hour. But on Shabbat, he sets up an auto-response and puts one of his employees in charge. He passes the time praying, eating and playing with his kids.

Cutting himself off from work isn’t always easy; Rich said he once hung up in the middle of a conference call because it was extending into Friday evening. But “so far, nothing’s fallen apart,” he said.

For those newer to the working world, striking a balance can be a more delicate matter. Reena Bloom, a 24-year-old student who lives in Teaneck, N.J., said she’s concerned that in an increasingly competitive job market, her commitment to observance may make her seem like a less desirable worker. She’s discussed the conundrum with other observant friends, and everyone has an opinion on when to break the news to a potential employer.

“Once you’re hired you have to talk to them about it,” said Bloom, who is studying to be an audiologist at Montclair State University. “I’ve heard some people don’t have the best response.”

Hoffman said he “makes no secret” of his religious commitment to his clients, and he finds they admire that his ethics are “of the highest caliber.” His observance has other benefits, too, he said.

“I don’t do it because I’m more effective during the week,” he said, “but I know that I’m more effective during the week because of it.”

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Hani Khan, Ex-Abercrombie Employee, Scores Legal Win After Being Fired For Wearing Hijab

A judge ruled that Abercrombie & Fitch violated federal law when the company fired a Muslim worker at one of its Hollister stores for refusing to take off her hijab.

Judge Yavonne Gonzalez Rogers ruled in favor of Hani Khan’s request for a summary judgment against Abercrombie, which owns Hollister, last week, according to court papers. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Abercrombie on behalf of Khan in 2011, after she claimed the company fired her in 2010 for her decision to wear the religiously-mandated headscarf.

“Reasonable jurors could determine that by offering Khan one option — to remove her hijab despite her religious beliefs — Abercrombie acted with malice, reckless indifference or in the face of a perceived risk that its actions violated federal law,” the judgment reads.

A trial will begin at the end of September to determine what Abercrombie owes Khan as a result of its illegal actions.

An Abercrombie spokesman wrote in an e-mail statement that it’s company policy not to comment on pending litigation.

“Abercrombie & Fitch does not discriminate based on religion and we grant religious accommodations when reasonable,” the statement reads.

The judge also denied Abercrombie’s claim that allowing Khan to wear her hijab on the job would present “undue hardship” to the company’s brand and sales. Khan had been wearing her hijab for four months at work before a district manager visited the store and decided it was against the company’s controversial “Look Policy,” which some say goes too far in micromanaging an employee’s dress.

“Abercrombie must provide more than generalized subjective beliefs or assumptions that deviations from the Look Policy negatively affect the sales or the brand,” the judgment reads. “The evidence presented does not raise a triable issue that a hardship, much less an undue hardship, would have resulted from allowing Khan to wear her hijab.”

Khan’s complaint is one of many accusing the retailer of discriminating against certain types of employees and customers. Abercrombie found itself in hot water earlier this year after a years-old quote from CEO Mike Jeffries resurfaced, boasting about the company’s “exclusionary” look. In addition, France’s human rights watchdog is investigating Abercrombie over claims the company discriminates in hiring based on appearance.

Do you work at Abercrombie & Fitch and have had an experience with its clothing policies? Send an email to kim.bhasin@huffingtonpost.com

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