In December I became a Tomato Rabbi. I know that this is an odd appellation but let me explain. I spent a week in Immokalee, Fla., —a small town halfway between Ft. Myers and Naples on Florida’s west coast. I joined a group of rabbis and cantors from across the spectrum of Jewish religious movements, brought together by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights to learn firsthand about the plight of tomato farm workers and their tremendous success in changing their working conditions through grassroots organizing. The Jewish tradition is replete with instruction (commandments) to ensure fair wages and maintain the dignity of the worker. Thus, the obligation to advocate on behalf of farm workers falls upon all of us in the Jewish community.
For me, this trip was especially significant, since I grew up in Florida, more or less oblivious to what was happening in the tomato fields a drive down the highway from my hometown of St. Petersburg.
Here is what I learned: Immokalee and its environs are home to the majority of tomato farms on the East Coast (for tomatoes distributed fresh, rather than those to be canned or used in processed food), and the major supplier of fresh tomatoes in the winter. And those who work those farms are among the poorest paid in this country. They have also been subject to wage theft, physical and sexual abuse, and forms of modern slavery. Since the forming in 1993 of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a worker-led organization that protects the basic — and legal — rights of farm workers, conditions have improved drastically.
Many large corporations — which include familiar names such as Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and even McDonald’s and Walmart — have signed on to the CIW’s Fair Food Program. In doing so, they legally commit to protecting the human rights of farmworkers; they also pay a price premium for tomatoes. Those extra cents over the cost of the produce get returned to the workers, helping to alleviate farmworker poverty.
Other food retailers, such as the grocery store Publix and fast food restaurant Wendy’s, have not done so. This is where the Tomato Rabbis enter the scene. We take our direction from the CIW and undertake actions that its leadership feels will be helpful to their cause. So while I was in Florida, I joined a protest outside a local Wendy’s, calling on the chain to buy their tomatoes through the Fair Food Program.
There is much more work for this Tomato Rabbi and others to do. But last month, in Immokalee, I got my start. So if you see me in the produce aisle at the supermarket carefully scrutinizing each package of tomatoes, looking for the Fair Food logo marking, or standing in front of a Wendy’s with a sign in my hand, you’ll now know why. I invite you to do the same. Perhaps the Sages of old didn’t realize that they too were Tomato Rabbis when they taught: We are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of North Brunswick, former executive director of Big Tent Judaism, is the author of more than 75 books. He is a consultant with Mersky, Jaffe & Associates.