Immokalee on My Mind


Ready to join #Tomatoclergy and CIW staff to protest in front of Wendy’s at busy intersection in Naples


Recently, I returned to Immokalee for the better part of three days thanks to a program sponsored by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, under the able leadership of Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, I learned so much.

Immokalee is where 90% of all tomatoes eaten fresh in the eastern United States are grown. It is one of the state’s poorest cities but a scant half hour away from one of the richest, Naples.

While many residents of Naples live lives of splendor; life for those in Immokalee is difficult, mired in poverty even after hours of backbreaking work in the fields.

They make their living in the vast tomato fields where, not long ago, rampant sexual abuse, pitiful working conditions and equally pitiful, sub-poverty wages were the backdrop for their efforts.

Complaints against these abuses met with summary dismissal.

The sorry history of farm work in southwest Florida also includes episodes of forced labor in which workers found themselves locked up in windowless and bathroom-less trucks overnight or housed behind barbed-wire enclosures patrolled by armed guards to keep them from escaping. Field foreman often denied workers access to shade, water and bathroom breaks.  There are several documented cases of workers being beaten.

But in the early 1990s, the workers began organizing, determined to change conditions in the fields and better their own lives. The organization they founded, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), started by trying to change conditions on the farms directly, attempting to get cooperation from the farm owners. But in 2001, they tried an innovative new strategy, holding the giant corporations at the top of the supply chain responsible for human rights abuses and low wages at the bottom.

The Fair Food Program demands that major food retailers pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes (paid directly to workers and aimed at increasing wages) and buy only from growers who had committed to stringent, legally binding human rights monitoring in the fields. 

One of the highlights of my three days in Immokalee was visiting the vast tomato fields of Sun Ripe Certified Brands, of Pacific Tomato Growers. There, in a lovely auditorium designed for worker educational sessions we met with the company’s human resources director, Jessica Castillo who told us: “When as a child, I saw my mother get up in the middle of the night to go out into the fields and be subject to all of the abuses . . . I never imagined that today I would be here paid by the company to provide mandatory education for workers on their basic rights. I am proud that workers seek out our company as a place to work and know that if they ever have a grievance it will be heard with sympathy and dealt with appropriately.”

Unfortunately, Publix, the largest grocery chain in southwest Florida, and Wendy’s’ have so far refused to join the Fair Food Program. I am so inspired by the optimism of the members of the CIW. I love that when CIW’s Lupe Gonzalo addressed us, she did not refer to Wendy’s as an enemy but as “a future partner” in advancing justice in the fields.

To encourage this “future partner” to hasten the day she joins the alliance, I joined seven other clergy people and a group of CIW workers in a demonstration in front of a Wendy’s at a busy intersection in Naples. Thousands of cars drove by, and many honked their horns in support.

Why does this matter to me?

Our Torah teaches there is no such thing as an innocent bystander in the face of injustice (DT 22:3), that we must pay our workers promptly and fairly (LV 19:13) and that we may not stand idly by while our neighbor suffers. (LV19:16)`

Because I take these teachings very seriously, I encourage you to communicate with Wendy’s and Publix about the Fair Food Program. Ask to see the store manager and tell them that a penny per pound is a small price to pay for basic human dignity.

Spiritual Darkness Has Descended

Martin Luther King Day should be a celebration of freedom, equality, and advances in Civil Rights. It should be a day of light and hope.

Last year it was

On MLK Day, 2017, I had the great privilege of addressing the community-wide celebration of MLK in Albuquerque. I aimed my remarks at the predominantly Hispanic students, seniors of area high schools who were recipients of MLK College scholarships. I saw the light in their eyes as they spoke of their hopes and dreams.

But this year, MLK Day was a day of spiritual darkness.

It was a day when Cindy Garcia watched her husband, Jorge, of 15 years, who had lived in the USA for 30 years, escorted through the security gate of Detroit Int’l Airport and deported to Mexico. Cindy and their two adolescent children stood weeping at the gate.

Is this really America?

Is this the land built by immigrants? Is this the land where the Statue of Liberty stands sentry at New York Harbor, proclaiming Emma Lazarus’ immortal words, “Give Me your tired your poor your huddled masses yearning to breathe free?”

In last week’s Torah portion, God sends the penultimate plague upon the land of Egypt: Darkness! It was darkness so thick you could feel it. It was a spiritual darkness — the same darkness that threatens to extinguish the light in the Statue of Liberty in the United States today.

Darkness envelops us when children born in this country see their parents deported. Darkness envelops us when we see hard-working laborers treated like slaves.

Last week a number of us from Bat Yam Temple of the Islands stood up for dignity and respect at the Wendy’s on Highway 41 in Fort Myers.

Thousands of people passing by on the highway saw the demonstration, and hopefully our plea will reach the hearts of those who can bring about change.

The Chairman of the Board of Wendy’s, Nelson Peltz, is Jewish. I have tweeted and written him on Face Book to request a meeting asking him to subscribe to the Fair Food Practices program that would insure a living wage and safe working conditions for the Farm Workers of Immokalee, Florida, where 90% of the tomatoes consumed in the United States are grown. I want to tell him that it would cost Wendy’s one penny more per pound to buy Fair Food Program tomatoes harvested by the hard workers of Immokalee than it does to buy them from sweatshop farms in Mexico. That would come to $4,000,000 a year, not insignificant but as manageable for Wendy’s as it is for McDonald’s, Burger King, Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Taco Bell and all the other food outlets that have subscribed to Fair Food Practices. Four million dollars should not be a daunting amount to Mr. Peltz, whose net worth exceeds 1.6 billion.

Until such time as Wendy’s complies, the demonstrators will take our business elsewhere, and urge everyone to do the same.

Although, the Torah teaches, darkness enveloped the land of Egypt; there was light in the habitations of the Hebrews (Exodus 10:23). Today as darkness descends on our country, let us continue to shine the light of unflagging pursuit of justice and righteousness!

And if it seems like our efforts amount to little and that we are spitting into the wind, let us remember the words of the second century Sage, Rabbi Tarfon, a very rich man who was a champion of the poor and disenfranchised. In response to the frustration we all feel in struggling against injustice, Rabbi Tarfon gave us a motto that sings out across the millennia:

“It is not incumbent on you to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.” (Pirke Avot 2:16)

That is why the Torah tells us no less than 36 times, more than any other commandment, to stand up for the dignity of the stranger, the poor, the widow, and the orphan.

They cry out to us today with a sense of desperation more intense than any I have heard in my lifetime. We may not complete the sacred work of their redemption, but we must never stop trying.