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Why Madison Rabbis Oppose Wisconsin Governor's Budget Repair Bill

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As opposition to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's budget repair bill continues to grow, last week all eight rabbis of the liberal movements of American Judaism (Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative) living in Madison, Wis., signed a letter distributed to colleagues throughout the country. While at times we differ significantly with one another in terms of religious practice and political perspectives, we easily found common moral ground opposing the proposed law that would end collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin public workers and usher in sweeping changes in Medicaid.

How were we able, within 24 hours, to draft and finalize a public letter detailing our religious opposition to the legislation? Because we each recognized that Governor Walker's bill spells disaster for our city and state. It will devastate local economies and drastically reduce the quality of our public schools, universities, nursing homes, child care centers and hospitals. The changes it will make in Medicaid will jeopardize the health and well-being of the mentally ill, disabled, elderly and poor.

We are keenly aware that if Governor Walker wins this political battle, this extreme legislation will spread to other states. We recognize that in these challenging economic times there are difficult fiscal decisions to be made, but Governor Walker's proposed legislation is not about balancing a budget; it is about amassing political power by stripping public employees of their right to collective bargaining. Instead of engaging public employees and other stakeholders in meaningful dialogue about the problems facing our state, he has unabashedly refused any public discussion or debate on these issues. This is one reason why the protests in Wisconsin have swelled to the tens of thousands over these past two weeks. Wisconsinites are outraged.

As rabbis who understand what is at stake for our congregants, institutions and the general public, it is our responsibility to speak from a moral position. Jewish tradition, beginning with the Hebrew Bible, mandates that employers treat their workers fairly: "You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer." Certainly not all public employees are needy and destitute, but this legislation will not only significantly reduce the wages and benefits for many, but it is designed to prevent them from sharing in future revenue gains when the economy does recover.

Jewish tradition's clear and unyielding support for workers' rights is one reason why all of the liberal movements of American Judaism have taken such strong positions in support of unions and the right to collective bargaining, and why almost all modern Jewish legal writing on labor unions has supported the right of workers to organize and collectively negotiate for wages, benefits and other important workplace issues.

That being said, not all rabbis share these positions, and the Jewish community has a complex relationship towards labor unions. While there is still widespread support for the labor movement among Jews, for some it is nostalgic. Jews express pride for Jewish involvement and leadership in the labor movement in the first part of the 20th century, but some prominent Jews and Jewish institutions have been hesitant to take pro-labor positions on contemporary issues such as the Employee Free Choice Act and living wage ordinances.

Among Jews living in Madison, there is nevertheless strong opposition to Governor Walker's legislation and strong support for the protests. Whenever I go to a rally at the Capitol, I run into congregants with their children. Several high school students in my congregation have taken active roles in the demonstrations. Our Jewish communities are comprised of people who will be directly affected by this legislation -- teachers, professors, social workers, nurses and government workers. Young and old, we know that we stand at a crucial moment.

It continues to astonish me how long people have sustained this engagement. Hundreds of people have been sleeping in the Capitol each night. During the day it is full of people chanting, drumming, singing, playing cello, holding religious services and organizing impromptu political discussions. The walls of the Capitol are covered with protest signs. The energy inside the Capitol rotunda is extraordinary. People are engaged. These issues are vital to them. Truly, this is what democracy looks like.

Laurie Zimmerman is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Madison, Wis.

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