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Rabbi fights for human rights in U.S., Israel
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Rabbi fights for human rights in U.S., Israel

Rabbi Jill Jacobs brought her campaign for human rights to Princeton this month, describing efforts by her organization, T’ruah, to assure fair working conditions for Florida tomato pickers and civil rights for minorities in Israel.

“The Florida tomato fields were ‘Ground Zero’ for slavery and human trafficking,” said Jacobs, in a Nov. 4 talk hosted by Ruth Schulman and David Eggers in his home.

T’ruah, formerly known as Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, has complained that many pickers were in debt bondage, having paid more money to come to the United States than they will ever be able to pay back. Working largely through partnerships with other nonprofits, T’ruah joined with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to ask growers, then retailers, to sign a Fair Food program with zero tolerance for slavery and a one-cent increase in what workers were paid for picking a pound of tomatoes. The first retailer to sign — after a three-year boycott — was Taco Bell in 2005.

In 2011 T’ruah brought its first group of rabbis to Florida, said Jacobs. When the rabbis learned that Trader Joe’s had not signed on to the Fair Food program, they brought Hebrew school students to talk to local managers. A group of rabbis and ministers was turned away from the company’s headquarters in California. After the headline “Trader Joe’s locks its doors to rabbis and ministers” appeared in Atlantic magazine and the company was threatened with a campaign of rabbis and congregations across the country, it signed on in February 2012.

T’ruah was originally the North American fund-raising arm of the Israel-based Rabbis for Human Rights, but the two separated last January.

“We are led by rabbis but are not just for rabbis. We see rabbis as catalysts — rabbis have to organize their own communities,” said Jacobs. The name “T’ruah” comes from the nine-blast shofar call that indicates, said Jacobs, “brokenness and a call for action.”

‘A moral aspect’

Turning to Israel, Jacobs said T’ruah recently intervened with the Jewish National Fund regarding its involvement in the eviction of a Palestinian family from its east Jerusalem home. After Jacobs sat down with JNF’s chief executive officer and T’ruah facilitated the writing of 1,600 letters, the organization eventually pulled out of the court process.

More recently, on Nov. 6, hundreds of rabbis from T’ruah and Rabbis for Human Rights delivered a plea urging the withdrawal of a Knesset bill that would approve the displacement of an estimated 30,000-40,000 Bedouins from their “unrecognized” villages in the south.

Jacobs, who was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, recalled when she and 50 rabbinical students were criticized for marching at a rally under the banner “Rabbinical Students for a Just Peace.”

“It bugged me that I couldn’t talk about Israel,” she said.

T’ruah has enabled her to advocate for human rights in Israel and the United States.

“It is not just a secular, moral issue — it is a religious imperative to take action on human rights,” said Jacobs. “This is part of our Jewish identity. We look deeply into our texts and bring them to the work we are doing.”

Schulman echoed the feelings of many attendees, as she spoke about Jacobs’s presentation. “It is so inspiring to see a person, a rabbi, who is so committed to her Judaism — and this comes out of her Jewish roots — and that there is a moral aspect of Judaism that requires us to be concerned about ourselves and the other, and she lives that life,” she said.

Attendee Linda Milstein was struck by the connection Jacobs made between Judaism and human rights activism. “There is a spiritual connection that we have to our world that we don’t usually talk about but plays a role in our feelings about these types of questions.”

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