Hotel workers are among some of the most poor and abused laborers in America today. Over 90 percent of hotel housekeepers have reported suffered work-related pain due to the demands of the job. How can the Jewish tradition inform an authentic Jewish ethic for hotel guests?
To start, we can cultivate more gratitude. Ben Zoma used to say, “What does a good guest say? Look at how much trouble my host has taken for me” (Berakhot 58a). Hotel workers are not only some of the most overworked, vulnerable laborers in America. They are also doing holy work by creating clean spaces for others to dwell in. Hakhnasat orchim (welcoming guests) is a great mitzvah in the Jewish tradition. Why is it then that we allow hotel workers serving as hosts to remain invisible people in our society?
Spending money on a product is a vote for its producer, and one of the greatest influences we have on society is through our decisions about where to spend our money. How – besides the location, price, and accommodations – should we choose a hotel? Hotel workers very often work long days, for less than the minimum wage (let alone a living wage). These workers need protections to ensure that we follow the Torah on Peulat Sakhir (a worker’s rightful wage) and Oshek (the oppression of workers).
You can learn which hotels use unionized labor here and which do not here. Ask the manager at a hotel that you’re considering staying at if they are unionized. If so, thank them. If not, let them know that you’re going to choose a different location. You can learn about the problems at the Hyatt hotels and the Jewish boycott here.
Great 20th century poskim (Jewish legal authorities) like Rav Uziel, Rav Feinstein, and Rav Kook came out strongly in support of unions and the halakhic rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively. Rabbi Uziel, the great Israeli Chief Rabbi, wrote “All of these (human needs) can only be achieved through unions, and thus the Torah of Israel grants a complete and legally recognized right to organize, even though this may result in a loss to employers.”
One should consider leaving a daily tip (in an obvious place) of around $3 - $6 for the hotel worker who cleans one’s room. These workers often make minimum wage doing exhausting work and these small tips can go a long way. One should consider leaving a note with the tip indicating that the money is for the one cleaning the room, since hotel workers are often informed not to take anything from rooms and that tip may end up in the wrong hands.
One might also consider making the work of those who clean our rooms a bit easier. One can strip the sheets from the bed and pillows, saving the worker from having to exert energy on this tedious task. Hotel workers commonly experience injuries on the job – by keeping the room organized and clean, other accidents can be avoided.
How often do you use new sheets and towels at home? Do we really need to request new sheets and towels every day at the hotel? Perhaps we can put up our “do not disturb sign” and save the energy of the worker, save water from the wash, and protect the environment to honor the mitzvah of bal tashchit (avoiding waste).
Further, we can strive to cultivate hakarat hatov (gratitude) by smiling and thanking the staff for their help and even starting up a conversation with them. Each day they serve guests more financially privileged in what can be an alienating environment.
This is what our tradition asks of us. Rav Soloveitchik taught “The Halakhah is not hermetically enclosed within the confines of cult sanctuaries but penetrates into every nook and cranny of life. The marketplace, the street, the factory, the house, the meeting place, the banquet hall, all constitute the backdrop for the religious life.” Jewish law and values must also penetrate into our hotels!
Cultivating our own Jewish hotel ethic is overdue and a tremendous opportunity for each of us to apply our sacred Jewish values to all facets of our lives. Yes, perhaps even on vacations!
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA Hillel and a 5th year PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. To read more Street Torah, click here.
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