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February 22, 2018 by

Meet a “Tomato Rabbi” Fasting Against Sexual Harassment

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster holds a megaphone as she stands outside a protest of Wendy's.

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster holds a megaphone while protesting Wendy’s.

Six-and- a-half years ago, in fall 2011, a group of 17 rabbis traveled to Immokalee, Florida, to meet with the women and men who work in the area’s tomato fields and hear, first-hand, about their ongoing campaign to win justice and respect from the growers who employ them. Since then, 10 delegations—of rabbis, cantors, and lay religious leaders—have visited Immokalee. The trips were sponsored by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and participants have become staunch supporters of efforts by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ to improve wages and end the sexual exploitation and harassment of female farmworkers.

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, Director of Programs at T’ruah and a longtime supporter of the CIW, spoke to Eleanor J. Bader about the Coalition’s upcoming “Freedom Fast;” her decision to participate in the five-day, liquids-only, hunger strike; and the Jewish imperative to support human rights.

Eleanor J. Bader: Many of those who support the Coalition of Immokalee Workers call themselves “tomato rabbis.” Where did the name come from?

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster: When our Executive Director, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, went on a trip to Immokalee several years ago, she told people that she’d be tweeting about the experience using the hashtag #tomatorabbis. The name stuck. We’ve even made “tomato rabbi” t-shirts that say: “Plant justice for yourself; Harvest the fruits of goodness.”

EJB: Why did T’ruah get involved with the CIW?

RK-T: In 2008, T’ruah launched a campaign against human trafficking, and we were looking to make a direct connection with people who had been trafficked. We knew that some trafficking victims end up as farmworkers, and we wanted to support individuals who were affected by human rights abuses.

We also knew that although the CIW had had the support of individual rabbis since its founding in 1993, T’ruah would be the first major Jewish organization to support its work. Since 2011, we’ve brought more than 100 people to Immokalee. At the time of our first visit, the Fair Food Program agreement (FFP)  was just being implemented, so we’ve been able to see its impact on the daily life of workers, in real time.

EJB: In addition to bearing witness, has T’ruah done other work to support the CIW?

RK-T: Rabbis are typically good at giving sermons, but at T’ruah we also want to take action, and every group that has visited Immokalee has done something concrete to promote workers’ human rights. One action involved holding a prayer circle in the produce aisle of a Publix supermarket in Florida, followed by leafletting consumers.

We’ve also focused on Trader Joe’s, since this store is often the only place where people can buy kosher food. In 2011, we wrote a letter, signed by 125 rabbis, that we sent to Trader Joe’s corporate headquarters, demanding that the company adopt the Fair Food Program standards. We also did numerous Sukkot actions at Trader Joe’s stores across the country, and put a mezuzah on the door of the first Trader Joe’s to open in Florida. The pressure worked, and led the chain to accept the FFP in 2012.

Right now, people are really jaded about the political process, but we’ve seen that the Fair Food Program agreement is real, something with teeth, and has led to improvements in people’s lives. We’ve observed that when the workers have a mechanism to report abuse without having to fear retaliation, it changes the culture of the workplace. In Immokalee, women no longer have to be afraid of their bosses or coworkers. They have a voice.

The abuse of women farmworkers has always been pervasive, but to have a solution that simultaneously works as a form of prevention is incredible. Farm work is still male-dominated, but the CIW made a decision to root out sexual harassment and abuse. They’ve made this a priority and Judge Laura [Safer Espinoza] and the Fair Food Standards Council monitor enforcement so that workers’ rights are respected and offenders are punished.

The importance of this can’t be overstated. Personally, I love the fact that this model can be exported, brought into other industries. I also love that it is not a top down solution, but is a strategic plan that came from the workers themselves.

EJB: Tell me why you decided to join the Freedom Fast.

RK-T: I believe that it is my place to stand alongside the farmworkers who are fasting. This action is for everyone who is committed to seeing change in the fields. There is power in being in solidarity. Every day of the action will include protests as well as opportunities for the Jewish community to meet with workers from Immokalee so that we can build and strengthen our ties to one another.

Of course, not everyone can fast for five days, but folks can participate for shorter periods; there are also other ways to show support. The Workman’s Circle, for example, is putting together a day in which children at their school will meet with children of the farmworkers—it is school vacation week in Immokalee so lots of kids will be in New York with their protesting parents—to talk about their lives and why this event is happening.

As of right now, three of us from T’ruah will fast, as will other people of faith. In fact, the pillars of ally work in support of the CIW have been high school and college students, motivated consumers, and people of faith. Representatives of these three constituencies will be drawing attention to the fact that Wendy’s has refused to adopt the Fair Food Program standards and board chair Nelson Peltz has refused to even speak to the farmworkers.

EJB: Has T’ruah previously attempted to talk to Wendy’s board chair Nelson Peltz, or pressure him in any way?

RK-T: The Jewish community has been protesting outside Peltz’s office since 2013. We sent him an open letter on Human Rights Day that year, asking Wendy’s to abide by the FFP standards. We’ve taken groups of rabbis to his office and even sounded a shofar in the lobby there. We’ve held vigils and call-in days. Last year, we went to a shareholder’s meeting and filled the room. One rabbi who was part of that action asked Peltz why he wouldn’t meet with us. He responded by saying, “I have enough rabbis in my life.” This provoked us to tweet him with the hashtag, #notenoughrabbis.

Look, the Jewish community has a voice and we have to use it. This is what it means to be an ally of the CIW, to participate in a movement for change. The Freedom Fast is an important effort. Justice for farmworkers is an issue that whole families can participate in and support. I’ve brought my kids to protest at supermarkets. I’ve talked about the ways farmworkers are mistreated as a way to introduce them to the idea of social justice. It is personally impactful for them to meet farmworkers and their kids, to understand the challenges other people face in their lives. Hebrew schools all over the country have sent post cards to Wendy’s corporate headquarters and to Peltz himself asking them to respect tomato workers and adopt the FFP; these activities are important tools to teach children and teens about social responsibility.

Nelson Peltz can be part of the solution. Wendy’s says it has created its own supplier code of conduct, but it is nowhere near as good as the FFP. The Fair Food Program gives tangible rights to workers and forces corporations to acknowledge human rights. This is why T’ruah supports the CIW and why we’re supporting the Freedom Fast.

This interview is Part II in a two-part series profiling women participating in the “Freedom Fast.” Part I features Lupe Gonzalo, an organizer with the CIW and former farmworker.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.