Note: Rabbi Barbara Penzner was a participant in RHR-NA’s rabbinic trip to the Florida to learn about slavery in the Florida tomato industry. She shared the following thoughts with her congregation upon her return.
When do you think about the workers who provide your food?
This was the first question posed on Tuesday morning to sixteen rabbis sitting in a migrant workers’ community center in Immokalee Florida. (Immokalee rhymes with broccoli).
Whatever response we each gave at 8 a.m., the answer had changed by 10 o’clock that night. After spending the day hearing from farm workers, visiting a tomato farm and meeting the grower and his human resources staff, I will never look at a tomato the same way again. Before I take the first bite, I will remember clearly the women with head scarves covering their mouths, bending over the new tomato plants in the Florida sun.
I went down to southwest Florida on Monday to learn about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their fight against modern slavery. In the course of a day in this remote immigrant town just north of the Everglades, we were shocked by stories of physical abuse, wage theft, sexual harassment and unlivable conditions. We were also inspired by the courage and the conviction of both workers and growers to give fair wages and to treat the workers with dignity.
At the end of the day, the rabbis entered a Publix Supermarket in Naples, Florida, wearing tallitot, surrounded the tomato display and broke into prayer and song on behalf of justice. We brought a message to the store and later called the CEO to encourage Publix to join the CIW campaign for dignity and to pay workers a penny-a-pound more for the tomatoes they pick.
I am grateful to Rabbis for Human Rights – North America, for organizing this trip as part of their campaign to end modern-day slavery. I was moved by the other rabbis and rabbinic students who took time out to spend a day with workers in Florida at the start of the tomato season and at the full moon of Elul, marking just two weeks until Rosh Hashanah. With several Boston-area rabbis on board, we can be assured that this is not an issue that will be left to rot in the Florida sun.
You will be hearing more about the CIW and their inspiring work on Rosh Hashanah and in the coming days and weeks. You will have an opportunity to do your part right here in Massachusetts on Sukkot and beyond.
I went to Immokalee for several reasons of my own. Among them, I went to Immokalee for you. In this season leading up to the Days of Awe, we seek to be transformed. I am always looking for ways to increase our spiritual awareness and to bring redemption to our world. That is what I found among the tomato pickers and the growers. I look forward to sharing with you the possibility for redemption and tikkun, repair, in the New Year.
Rabbi Barbara Penzner