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Rabbis give support to Fla. tomato pickers
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Rabbis give support to Fla. tomato pickers

Rabbi Rachel Khan-Troster protests on behalf of tomato pickers in Florida, who she said deserve the support of the Jewish community in their efforts to be paid a “dignified” wage.
Rabbi Rachel Khan-Troster protests on behalf of tomato pickers in Florida, who she said deserve the support of the Jewish community in their efforts to be paid a “dignified” wage.

Few people would connect a tomato with Jewish tradition, yet for many rabbis, it has become a symbol of the struggle for justice and human rights.

The cause of the underpaid 30,000 migrant workers who harvest tomatoes in Florida has been taken up by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

“Some people say that it’s just a tomato, but the tomato is just the end game,” said Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, program director at T’ruah. “It’s really less about the product and more about the worker. It is not the tomato that is created in the image of God; it is the worker who picked it. It is the human beings behind our food who just want to be paid a dignified wage.”

Kahn-Troster will outline T’ruah’s affiliation with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which has fought for and won concessions from major supermarket and fast food chains on behalf of exploited workers, and its correlation to Jewish values during her appearance as the Diana S. Herman Memorial Scholar-in-Residence at Temple Emanu-El in Edison, Friday-Saturday, March 13-14.

Through Jewish text and historical references, she will tie in the plight of the workers, whose average wage is only $10,000 despite long hours, exposure to pesticides, and backbreaking labor, bringing in issues of supporting the poor and suffering, the obligation to uphold human rights, and — with Passover just weeks away — the issue of redeeming the enslaved.

“As Jews we should care about human rights and workers’ rights,” Kahn-Troster told NJJN in a phone interview. “The tomato industry is a tremendous source of abuse. As rabbis and Jews we should be activists on the front lines of campaigning for human rights. We don’t tend to think of economic rights as human rights in the U.S. We should be voting with our fork, and that’s great, but we must also work to make changes ”

Because of federal exemptions in the labor law for farm workers, these laborers are paid 50 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes picked rather than by the hour. By contrast, consumers pay $75-$80 for the same 32 pounds of tomatoes.

The coalition, named for an area about 30 miles east of Fort Myers, has organized the workers through its Fair Food Program to raise wages of tomato pickers by one penny a pound and “ensure fair, regulated working conditions in the fields to end the conditions that have led to widespread labor trafficking and slavery,” said Kahn-Troster.

In 2010 the CIW scored a major victory when the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange — comprising about 90 percent of the industry and 12 participating corporations — agreed to the fair food program as a “business response,” said Kahn-Troster. 

Particularly targeted are fast food chains and supermarkets, among the largest purchasers of fresh tomatoes. Major food retailers, including Wal-Mart, have agreed to the program, and virtually all fast food chains have signed on to it.

Kahn-Troster said T’ruah is working with rabbis across the country to be proactive on this issue, bringing groups of rabbis from across the denominations to Florida for them to learn about the workers’ struggles and engage their congregations in the cause. 

“It’s amazing to go to these farms and see the workers being educated on how to help themselves,” said Kahn-Troster, who noted that such a program dovetails with the highest of Maimonides’ eight levels of charity. 

“We have had rabbis who have taken Hebrew school students to protest out in front of Wendy’s” — one of the few chains not to sign on to the fair food program — “across the country,” said Kahn-Troster. Protests also targeted Trader Joe’s, whose failure to participate in the CIW program was particularly troubling, she said, because in some parts of the country it is a major provider of kosher meat to the Jewish community.

When two letters, one signed by 125 rabbis and another signed by various clergy members, were taped to the doors of Trader Joe’s Monrovia, Calif., headquarters, a security guard ripped them up, producing a wave of negative publicity. Three months later Trader Joe’s agreed to become part of the program.

“One of the things that should inspire us as rabbis is supporting models that are about justice and not just about charity,” said Kahn-Troster. “Tzedaka is important and should be supported, but we will be giving tzedaka forever if we don’t make the changes that will help these people raise their wages. This really is an important component of Judaism.”

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