Thanks, rabbis now we can feel good about tomatoes at Trader Joes

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

I, along with most Jews I know, take these words seriously. We read them in this week’s Torah portion and we relive them every Passover. We imagine what it was like to be slaves and celebrate our freedom. But the truth is, there are people in our own country who don’t have to imagine what it is like to be a slave — they are victims of modern-day slavery, and some of our favorite stores buy products from companies that benefit from these cruel labor practices.

After watching the film “The Dark Side of Chocolate,” a documentary about child labor abuses in the cocoa fields, I made a commitment to only buy fair trade chocolate. Then I began hearing about atrocities in the tomato fields of Immokalee, Fla.

Immokalee (rhymes with broccoli) is the epicenter of our nation’s tomato supply; it is located in south Florida, which between December and May produces as much as 90 percent of the nation’s tomatoes.

We’ve been hearing about Immokalee over the past few years because human rights organizations all across the country have been shedding light on horrifying cases where workers picking tomatoes have been victims of modern-day slavery. In November 2009, three farm workers locked inside a tomato delivery truck kicked open a ventilation hatch, escaped and brought public attention to the exploitation and abuse found in the Immokalee tomato fields. And this is just one of many such stories.

Two delegations of my rabbinical collea-gues from Rabbis for Human Rights–

North America visited Immokalee in an effort to see with their own eyes the awful truth of how workers have been abused by the growers. Each delegation of rabbis talked with farm workers and with members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization fighting for the rights of those who work in the fields.

Why would rabbis travel from all over the country for a few days in the tomato fields? Because if we really take the words of our Exodus story seriously, we can’t just read them on the page. Working with other human rights groups, Rabbis for Human Rights–North America has seen an opportunity to elevate the true values of Jewish tradition. If the story of our Exodus has any meaning at all, rabbis must act upon our imperative of “knowing the soul of the stranger.”

The “tomato rabbis” stage an action at a Publix supermarket in Naples, Fla. photo/courtesy rabbi rachel kahn-troster

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been pressuring companies to sign on to the Fair Food Act. When companies sign on, they agree to buy tomatoes only from companies that adhere to a set of labor standards that includes a zero-tolerance policy for human trafficking, a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment, one cent more per pound for tomatoes and basic safety protections.

In March 2005, after a four-year campaign, Taco Bell agreed to meet all of the demands of the Immokalee workers. Other companies that have signed on include Whole Foods, Subway and McDonald’s. And on Feb. 9, Trader Joe’s became the most recent company to sign on. This was a major victory for everyone who cares about human rights and it is directly related to the ongoing work of many organizations that have brought attention to the tragic conditions for workers in the tomato fields.

As a result of the Rabbis for Human Rights–North America campaign, more than 125 North American rabbis signed a petition urging Trader Joe’s to sign on to the Fair Food Act — and more than 500 Jews from around the country delivered letters with the same message to their local Trader Joe’s stores.

During the last RHR-NA delegation, rabbis posted a “mezuzah of justice” on the new Trader Joe’s in Naples, Fla., the chain’s first store in the Sunshine State.

Rabbis all over the country had been preparing actions at Trader Joe’s in their communities, but last week, those actions turned into celebrations and expressions of thanks to Trader Joe’s for their support of workers’ rights.

Next time I visit my local Trader Joe’s, I know I’ll be expressing my gratitude. And this year, maybe I’ll put a tomato on my seder plate as a reminder that we live in a world where some are still slaves and so there is much work to be done.

To find out more about the campaign and upcoming actions planned for other grocery stores that have not yet signed on to the Fair Food Act, visit www.ciw-online.org and www.rhrna.org/issuescampaigns.

Rabbi Paula Marcus
is a rabbi and cantor at Reform Temple Beth El in Aptos.