Rabbi Naftali Estulin, director of the Russian Outreach Program of the Hasidic Jewish Chabad sect, rarely gets through the week without hearing at least one complaint from a Russian Jewish immigrant forced to work on the Sabbath.
To Estulin, who works with the burgeoning Russian Jewish emigre population in West Holywood, the complaints are signs of blatant religious discrimination. "All the time, I'm getting complaints," Estulin said. "At least in Russia, you can say the government is responsible. Here it is private people."
Until last week, Estulin was powerless to act. "I called every boss I could. Not everyone can be convinced," he said.
Now he has been given more leverage in the form of a new West Hollywood ordinance banning religious discrimination in the workplace. The law, passed last week by the City Council, covers all religious beliefs and practices, but its most immediate application will be in defending the rights of the new city's large Jewish population,
State Law Sought
The ordinance also signals the start of a campaign by California's Orthodox Jewish community to enact similar laws covering religious practices in Los Angeles and Los Angeles County and eventually in the state.
"We want to get it approved anyplace we can," said Rabbi Chaim Schnur, director of Agudath Israel, a coalition of Orthodox Jewish organizations. "The more places that get them, the more people become educated about the needs of Jews and other religious minorities."
To council members, who passed the law unanimously, the ordinance represents an extension of efforts to strengthen state and federal antidiscrimination laws. "It's a statement that this city will protect the rights of all people," said Councilman Alan Viterbi, who sponsored the bill. "It doesn't matter whether it's sexual orientation or religious practices or anything else--we want people to know that any form of discrimination won't be tolerated in West Hollywood."
One of the council's first acts was to pass a law banning discrimination against homosexuals. Last week City Atty. Michael Jenkins warned Barney's Beanery, a West Hollywood restaurant, that it was violating the ordinance by distributing matchbooks that warn: "Fagots (sic) Stay Out." And the council has also appointed a committee to look into the possibility of establishing comparable worth for male and female city employees.
West Hollywood's new law covering religious discrimination differs from state and federal anti-discrimination laws, Viterbi said, in that it not only protects religious beliefs from infringement but also religious practices. "This is a very specific law that prohibits any kind of religious discrimination at work," he said.
Orthodox Jews, who adhere strictly to admonitions to observe the Sabbath from sunset Friday night to sunset Saturday night, are sometimes forced to make a choice between their religion and their jobs, said Staney Treitel, executive director of the United Community and Housing Development Corp., an organization working to revitalize the Orthodox Jewish community in West Hollywood and the Beverly-Fairfax area.
"We had one case where a fellow worked for the county as a pharmacist," Treitel said. "For years his bosses let him go home early on Friday and make up work later in the week. But then a new supervisor came in and told him he'd have to work the Saturday rotation, just like everyone else. It got straightened out, but with laws like this, it would never have come up in the first place."
Estulin has encountered similar complaints, mostly from West Hollywood's Russian Jews. Often forced to take whatever job they can find, Russian Jews sometimes find themselves also forced to make the choice.
"They feel like they're slaves," Estulin said. "One time, one of the immigrants called me to complain, so I called his boss. The man said: 'Mister, there's a lot of people waiting for a job like this.' I told him: 'Don't you want to help a Russian Jew?' He hung up on me."
Under the new law, any business employing more than one person would be prohibited from forcing employees to work on the Sabbath. Violators face a $500-a-day fine. The law would not only aid Jews, Treitel said, but also Seventh-day Adventists who observe the same Sabbath hours.
The ordinance is similar to a law passed in New York City in 1972, Schnur said, and since duplicated in many Northeast states. "California is years behind the times," he said.
Orthodox Jewish leaders plan a trip to Sacramento this month to lobby leaders of the Legislature for a similar state bill. And anti-discrimination efforts also will be made with the Los Angeles City Council and the county's Board of Supervisors, Schnur said. He expects additional support from the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, which in the past has legally represented victims of religious discrimination.
"We're simply interested," he said, "in seeing to it that people can observe their religion as they see fit."