By Jesse Olitzky, Congregation Beth El, South Orange, NJ
Rabbi Jesse Olitzky has left Florida where he has served as rabbi at the Jacksonville Jewish Center to become senior rabbi at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey with indelible memories of “an eye opening experience” with the tomato workers of Immokalee, a town in the southwest Florida, just a 3 ½ hour drive away from his former home and shul. Tomatoes are the “golden crop of Florida”: most of our winter tomatoes come from there as well as 50% of all fresh tomatoes sold in the U.S, particularly by national food chains and restaurants such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Walmart. While Jesse found it hard to believe what was going on “in our own back yard”, the U.S. Attorney General calls Southwest Florida “ground zero” for human trafficking since migrant workers are exempted from the legal guarantee of collective bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act. This means that workers such as those who harvest tomatoes are often victims of a pernicious labor practice frequently called “modern slavery”: since employers control their visas they can exploit workers with low wages and deplorable work conditions and threaten to send them back to their home countries if they attempt to take collective action.
Fair Food Program
Jesse – like a dozen other RA members - was persuaded by our colleagues Jill Jacobs and Rachel-Kahn Troster of Truah to visit the Immokalee workers who have successfully organized as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Having improved their own working conditions, the CIW now campaigns to get national food chains and restaurants to sign on to the Fair Food Program and agree to pay one cent more per pound for the tomatoes they buy so that tomato workers can make a minimum wage and human resource workers can have a presence at the farms in order to certify that workers get breaks, water and shaded areas; can deal with reported threats or charges of sexual assaults; and are granted the right to leave their jobs if they wish. The Fair Food Program has gone a long way to reduce exploitation in the fields and the CIW recently undertook a “Now is the Time” tour – a 10 city in 10 days campaign to encourage national food chains to sign on to the Fair Food Program and buy tomatoes only from growers who pay workers a fair wage.
Enter Jesse’s former students from Jacksonville’s Martin J. Gottlieb Day School. These middle school students were involved in the December 2013 Truah Human Rights Shabbat, participating in an action at Wendy’s - the local restaurant of the only major fast food chain that hasn’t yet joined the Fair Food Program. Accompanied by parents and teachers, students held up posters and signs and engaged in conversation with drivers who were stopped at traffic lights and also had a Skype session with representatives from the CIW. The students had written letters about the Fair Food Program, to retailers, restaurants, markets and caterers encouraging them to sign up to ensure that tomatoes and other produce do not come from exploited workers.
Exploitation and the Purim Story
When the Immokalee workers stopped in Jacksonville on their Now is the Time tour, students hosted them for breakfast on the Friday before Purim and talked about the relationship between Purim and the Fair Food workers. Esther, they pointed out, could have stayed as the Queen she’d always wanted to be but realized that she was the only voice of her people so she spoke up and risked her life in order to save them. As Jesse notes, middle school kids and teens talk “figuratively”: the Exodus experience, for example, has meaning in theory and in terms of forming Jewish identity but it has no real concrete meaning for contemporary teens. But coming to know these farm workers, learning of their experiences and courage, engaging in their issues gives concrete meaning to what our tradition teaches. We are commanded not to “stand idly by”, we are called “b’nei horim”; as God’s “or l’goyim” we are obliged to look out for all humanity and to act. And when questioned as to why it mattered for Jews to participate in picketing non-kosher restaurants, it was a supremely teachable moment for this rabbi to talk about what it means when we say that this food – food harvested by those who are victimized – is not kosher.
Bringing the Message North
While Jesse has become the rabbi of Congregation Beth El of South Orange, he carries with him the awareness of this experience in the tomato fields of Immokalee and with the kids in Jacksonville. While he encourages every rabbi in Florida to spend 48 hours in the “troubling, heartbreaking, and yet encouraging and inspiring” tomato fields, he will be taking up these issues in South Orange since his new congregation’s commitment to social justice was one of the reasons he’s heading north to this particular New Jersey town. Jesse’s commitment to social justice and the ongoing struggle for farmworkers’ rights, is a reminder that our rabbinic work is the living result of Rabbi Tarfon’s teaching: we may not ever fully complete the task, but we cannot avoid or neglect it either.
Please Note: You can read Jesse’s blog about his experience with the Immokalee workers at:
http://rabbiolitzky.wordpress.com/2013/01/25/slavery-in-our-own-backyard and view a video on the Truah website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pe7QTTk9XY4. If you go to the Florida Times Union website and search for Rabbi Jesse Olitzky you’ll find his column for March 26, 2013 which, he later learned, was a seder topic for many of his congregants!
And if you would like to join the Fall delegation to Immokalee sponsored by T’ruah the information can be found here: http://org2.salsalabs.com/o/5149/signup_page/floridatripapplication