It's not every day that I get kicked out of a supermarket, but it's also a bit unusual to see a group of rabbis singing in Hebrew in the tomatoes section of a Publix in Naples, Fla.
Fifteen rabbis and I had travelled to Immokalee, Fla., to meet with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants advocating for dignified wages and working conditions in the tomato fields. My colleagues and I spent the day learning about CIW's Campaign for Fair Food, which includes not only a penny-per-pound of tomatoes wage increase, but also a code of conduct in the fields, enshrining zero tolerance policies for sexual abuse, wage theft and slavery, among other basic rights.
To bring attention to the campaign and to highlight the disturbing fact that the grocery industry (especially Publix and Trader Joe's) has steadfastly refused to sign Fair Food Agreements, we were holding a prayer circle around the tomatoes, singing songs of justice. Apparently, the manager of the store was OK with a group of rabbis in tallitot (prayer shawls) circling the tomatoes, but once we started singing and drawing more curious onlookers, it got to be too much for her and we were asked to leave.
Just what rabbis do every day, right?
It has been more than 50 years since Edward R. Murrow's groundbreaking documentary "Harvest of Shame" highlighted the labor abuses found in America's fields, and today, huge problems still persist. Farmworkers are still paid by the piece, not per hour, with wages often falling far below minimum wage. They often face physical abuse, wage theft, sexual harassment and harmful exposure to pesticides. Sometimes conditions are so horrific that they meet the legal standard for human trafficking; indeed, one federal prosecutor has called Immokalee "ground zero" for modern slavery in America, with more than 1,000 workers freed in the past 10 years.
The people who harvest our food deserve dignity and a fair wage for their hard work. Geraldo, member of the CIW, lamented, "Why do I spend every day harvesting food for the rest of America and then have to stand in line at a food pantry on Thanksgiving for a plate of food?"
Sukkot, which begins this week, is the Jewish version of Thanksgiving. All of three of the pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot) are connected with a harvest, but Sukkot, coming at the end of the fall growing season, really bursts with agricultural celebration. We wave around the lulav and etrog, celebrating God's gift of the harvest with all of our senses, and fill our sukkot with the beautiful gifts of the ground: apples, cranberries, gourds and Indian corn. Sukkot is also a creation festival, a celebration of the renewal of God's world.
And yet, while we may understand that we are partners with God in creation, including the gift of the food that we eat, we often forget to acknowledge the workers, like Geraldo and the members of the CIW, who are the divine middlemen and women. Without them, the food would not make it out of the fields, let alone to our table.
The prophet Hosea teaches: "Plant righteousness for yourselves; harvest the fruits of goodness" (Hosea 10:12). The agricultural metaphor for creating a more just world is apt: if we start small, planting tiny seeds of justice, then nurture those seeds through the obstacles of the growing season and whatever challenges society throws in our way, then we will be rewarded in the end with the fruits of goodness. But what I particularly like about this verse is that it insists that we must be our own agents of change. We must plant righteousness for ourselves, neither planting on behalf of someone else nor waiting for someone to plant righteousness for us.
A large part of what makes the CIW so remarkable is that they are agents of their own change. Rather than waiting for the growers or the retailers to raise wages or improve working conditions, they have fought back to change their own reality. They went straight to the top of the supply chain, initially by-passing the growers to negotiate directly with the large corporations who purchase the tomatoes. Many of us recall their successful campaigns over the past 10 years with corporations such as Taco Bell, McDonald's, Aramark and Whole Foods. A major victory was achieved just last fall when 90 percent of the members of the Florida Tomato Growers' Exchange agreed to sign Fair Food Agreements if their purchasers would sign on as well. But that is where things have stalled, as the grocery stores have refused to comply.
As Sukkot begins, and we remember the farmworkers who picked the harvest we are celebrating, we at Rabbis for Human Rights-North America want to do more than just sing songs of justice around some tomatoes in Naples. We are calling on the Jewish community to support the CIW in its Campaign for Fair Food. A just harvest cannot mean tomatoes picked by slave labor or for sub-poverty wages. Only once we have fair food can we truly harvest goodness.
For more on RHR-NA's support of the CIW, please visit RHR-NA.org.