May 2012 Articles

Answering the Call

Barbara Penzner’s ’78 commitment to human rights is inextricably linked to her faith and rabbinical work.

By Molly Petrilla

Barbara Penzner ’78 marches in support of Hyatt workers in Boston. Photo courtesy of UNITE HERE.

Barbara Penzner ’78 marches in support of Hyatt workers in Boston. Photo courtesy of UNITE HERE.

Fresh out of Bryn Mawr with a degree in Russian, Barbara Penzner ’78 knew she wanted to make the world a better place. She just wasn’t sure how to get started.

About a year into weighing her options, she experienced what those in the Christian clergy would describe as “a call,” or what Oprah might deem an “aha! moment.” Penzner was celebrating the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah with her synagogue when someone handed her a Torah scroll to dance with.

“I had never had the opportunity to get that close to a Torah,” she says. “I looked at the rabbi, who was someone I really admired, and I thought, ‘Wow, I could do this. This is exactly what I want to do.’”

Though women had only recently begun to be ordained as rabbis, Penzner had no qualms about her suitability for the job. She enrolled in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, studying the modern movement that views Judaism as a progressively evolving civilization and places a high value on social-justice work. During the five-year rabbinical program, she developed a commitment to social justice that is inextricably linked to her faith and has driven her rabbinical work.

“The central story of Jewish life is the Passover story,” Penzner says. “It’s the story everyone knows—the exodus from Egypt. We were once slaves in Egypt, and therefore we should never oppress a stranger.”

In 2004, having firmly established herself as a Reconstructionist rabbi in Boston, Penzner revisited her passion for social justice in a new way. She had begun working with the Jewish Labor Committee, helping to advocate for workers’ rights, when a scandal hit the Boston labor community. Three Hyatt hotels fired their entire housekeeping departments on the same day and outsourced the work to a company Penzner says “had a terrible reputation for mistreating workers.”

Appalled, she rallied other local rabbis to lead a boycott against the facilities—one that spread to a national level and led Penzner to a meeting with the Hyatt Corporation’s vice presidents. In a report published with UNITE HERE, the union that represents hotel workers, Penzner and other Jewish clergy declared Hyatt Hotels “not kosher until they treat their workers with justice.”

“Jewish families celebrate their weddings and bar mitzvahs at hotels, and we wanted to send a statement that we wouldn’t stand for it: We wouldn’t use them until they hired their workers back,” she says.

While she says her fight against Hyatt remains “an ongoing effort”—the workers have yet to be rehired—it did lead Penzner to other labor-related causes and helped her earn the 2011 Human Rights Hero Award from Rabbis for Human Rights-North America.

Last year, she became involved in that group’s partnership with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, fighting what she describes as “modern-day slavery in the Florida tomato fields.” The groups recently convinced several fast-food chains, college dining services, and supermarkets to join their Fair Food Campaign to encourage fair wages and conditions for migrant workers.

As Penzner observes, it’s “very easy for us to go about our business and interact with stores and hotels and restaurants, but … we [must] remember the invisible people who are making it possible for us to be so comfortable.”