My trip to Immokalee


2nd Day of Passover MARCH 27, 2013



Hag kasher v’Sameah.

I want to thank Rabbi Baum for this invitation to speak about my experience in Immokalee with T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.  In January I joined 9 other rabbis to learn first-hand about the conditions in the tomato fields of Florida, source of 90% of the winter tomatoes eaten in the US.  It was eye-opening.  In this season of Passover – when we see ourselves as if we personally were among those brought out of Egypt – it is crucial that we open our eyes to others who have been enslaved and have gained freedom – in the words of the haggadah have journeyed from degradation to praise.

This tomato, weighing in at roughly ½ pound, costing $1.15 at Publix, has a story to tell.  One morning not so long ago a worker woke up before 4 am in order to get to the large parking lot in the center of Immokalee where field bosses come each morning to choose their team.  Old school buses are filled with workers and leave the lot from 4:30 until 10 am.  Some travel only a few minutes, others several hours to the fields.  Then the workers may have to wait until the dew has lifted before they can begin picking the size and quality of tomato required for that day’s work.  The worker will go down the rows picking tomatoes and placing them in large buckets – 32 pounds of tomatoes per bucket.  He then lifts the bucket and carries it to the field boss who gives him a pay ticket to keep.  He them lifts the bucket to his shoulder, runs to a waiting truck where he throws the 32-pound bucket up to be emptied.  He has earned roughly fifty cents.  To earn the equivalent of minimum wage for the day he will need to do that same thing 152 more times – lifting 2.25 tons of tomatoes per day.

And that is the way it works when all goes well.

On a warm, not hot, day we stood in the field looking down long rows of tomatoes.  We weren’t picking any tomatoes, only seeing how they are set out.  Still I was quickly dry and wanted water.  I had lifted one full bucket, slowly, the day before and could not imagine doing so in that sun, over one hundred times a day.

Ben Zoma would teach, “Blessed be He who created all these people to serve me.  How hard did the first person have to struggle to toil before he could eat a piece of bread: he seeded, plowed, reaped, sheaved, threshed, winnowed, separated, ground, sifted, kneaded, formed loaves, and baked them, and only then could he eat.  But I arise in the morning and find all these foods ready before me.

–      Y. Berakhot 9:2; T. Berakhot 6:5, cited in The Other Talmud: The Yerushalmi, by Rabbi Judith Abrams, PhD, pg 98

Looking down those rows it is easy to echo Ben Zoma’s words.  The men and women who do this necessary work that puts food on our tables deserve our praise and support.  They earn every dollar they receive – and probably deserve more.

Since you were a slave to Pharaoh, you know the heart of the slave.  The conditions in the fields today are much improved over what they were even a few years ago when the work was plagued by low wages (which says a lot given that the wages are still so low), wage theft, physical and sexual abuse in the fields, and slavery.  I don’t mean slave-like conditions, I mean slavery.  As recently as  1997 a Federal prosecutor characterized South Florida as“ground zero for modern-day slavery.”

Two stories:

I am standing outside the headquarters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the folks who organized to change conditions in the tomato fields of Florida, looking at a light blue, bloodied shirt which once belonged to a 17-year-old worker who paused one hot day in 1996 to take a drink of water.  A field supervisor accosted him, shouting,  “Are you here to work or to drink water?” and beat him.  The young man walked several miles from the field to the offices of the CIW and told his story.  That night 500 workers marched to the home of the field supervisor waving his bloody shirt.

The workers learned that night that there was power in numbers.  They could demand better treatment and gain a hearing. 

Looking at that bloody shirt I try to imagine the pain felt by that young worker.  I try to imagine the fury of the field boss who could beat a person just for taking a glass of water on a hot day.  I envision the scene that night as hundreds of workers stood together to proclaim – you cannot treat us this way.

The Coalition had begun just a few years earlier seeking ways to improve conditions in the fields, to give the workers the dignity they deserve for doing a hard, back-breaking job that needs to be done.  They educated people to their rights, few though they may have been.  They educated the local police to the conditions they faced.

The bloody shirt is displayed just outside a standard panel truck, the kind that delivers furniture to your home.  It was a truck like that which was used by Geovanni and Cesar Navarrete to hold 9 workers as slaves.  They would lock the workers into the truck at night – no amenities, they were forced to urinate and defecate in the corner of the truck.  The brothers would beat the workers to enforce their will.

But one night a worker succeeded in making a hole in the truck and he escaped.  He met a man, known to the police for his drinking, on the streets of Immokalee that night.  When an officer stopped the men, and began to give the one a bit of a hard time, that man said to the officer, why are you bothering me.  You should hear this man’s story, he’s been a slave. 

Consider the scene.  Drunken man on the street, saying to a small-town police officer – talk to this man because he as been a slave.  How would you predict the outcome of that conversation?  Ask yourself first, how does that man know that slavery is an issue?  The answer: the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has a radio station that offers community service messages along with music.  He was educated.  And why would the officer listen to him? Because the Coalition also works with local officials to train them and to help them respond.  That conversation led to the investigation, indictment and conviction in which the Navarrete brothers, in 2008, received 12-year federal prison sentences for enslaving Mexican and Guatemalan tomato pickers.

It is one of seven cases of slavery which have been prosecuted ending in convictions over the past 15 years in our state.  The Navarrete brothers enslaved 9 people.  The Ramos brothers enslaved over 700 in Lake Placid, Fl – they were convicted in 2004.

If, on these days of Pesach, you recall what it was like to be a slave to Pharaoh in Egypt, your heart must break for these men and women.  The call for justice, for more equitable conditions, must be on your lips. Rav Kook, first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the Yishuv, taught that “the difference between the slave and the freeman is not merely a matter of status, that this one happens to be enslaved and this one not enslaved.  We are able to find an enlightened slave whose spirit is filled with a sense of freedom.  Conversely, there are freemen who possess an enslaved spirit.”  (Ma’amare HaRa’ya, pg 157-8) The men and women who founded and direct the CIW possess such a sense of freedom, and that has benefited the workers of Immokalee.

On our first day in Immokalee we learned the history and saw the sub-standard, over-priced  housing where many workers are forced to live. We were up at 4 am to watch as workers were selected to go with this field boss or the other.  Their situation weighed heavy on us.

Then we went to see the fields.  Pacific Tomato Growers, you may know their product as Sunripe, is owned by the Esformes family, Sephardi Jews who have been in the business here since 1920.  We sat in their conference room and heard how the head of the family called his lawyer erev Yom Kippur, 2010, weeks before the farm owners sat down as a group to consider the proposals of the CIW.  He told his lawyer to draw up the necessary papersbecause he needed to sign this before Kol Nidre.  Before Yom Kippur began – he needed to do right for his workers.

Another member of the family told us that they had, in practice, observed most of the principles of the agreement, but it had not been in writing.  The cost of signing?  It helped stabilize their work force, it built loyalty, it allowed for a better relationship between the workers and the company.  They were the first, the second was also a Jewish owned firm, Six-Ls.  Currently 90% of the growers are on board.

In the 18th century, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, was touring the local matzah factory, in order to inspect the matzah to ensure that it was Kosher for Passover. After looking carefully, he declared that the matzah inside was not Kosher. When the shocked factory owners, and community leaders asked him why not, he told them that the women in the factory were forced to labor too long and too hard, and that they were not being paid fairly for their work. He declared that the matzah was traif because it was produced through oshek, oppression of the workers and exploitation.

(Recounted in Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim – Early Masters, pg 225)

The conditions that once prevailed in the fields certainly met the definition ofoshek, oppression.  One doesn’t need to fall into slavery to be oppressed.

If you were given the task of changing the situation, what would you do?  How would you begin?

The CIW began by establishing a human connection and then designing action to help bring the humanity of the workers to the corporation.  While one farm boss had characterized the workers as nothing but interchangeable parts in the harvesting machine, the Coalition presented real people to churches, synagogues, civic groups and corporations.  In 2004, following a 4 year campaign, Taco Bell and Yum Brands signed on.  Others followed – today all of the major fast food chains, except Wendy’s, have signed on their support.  Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have signed on – earlier this month the workers conducted a 2 week, 150 mile march from Ft Myers to Lakeland in an effort, so far unsuccessful, to get Publix to sign on.

The focus is on the Campaign for Fair Food.  It aims to raise wages for the first time since 1980, to establish humane conditions in the fields – including the right to periodically stop for water and shade, and the creation of a viable enforcement program which offers a way to report and substantiate instances of abuse and slavery, should they recur.  The program is self-contained.  The corporations that join the Fair Food program agree to only use tomatoes from farms which are compliant.  There is a Fair Food Standards Council that investigates complaints.  If a farm is found to be non-compliant, the corporations will no longer use them until the situation has been repaired.

The men and women of the CIW possess a strong sense of freedom.  They organized, worked and created a self-sustaining system to improve conditions in the fields.  They took their fate in their own hands and they are succeeding.  Their work is transformational and inspiring.  Your help is also needed.

Remember that without Pharaoh’s daughter Moses might have drifted aimlessly down the river.  We all need allies.  The Fair Food Campaign seeks to convince corporations to sign on, including a contract that directly pays workers one penny more.  Corporations, in turn, listen to their customers – you.  Currently the CIW is focused on two companies: Wendy’s and Publix.

Wendy’s would be the last of the major fast food chains to sign on.  Their website says that they are “a leader in the development and execution of quality processes and initiatives that are focused on a safe and wholesome food supply – from our supplier’s farms to the customer’s table.”  But so far not to the quality of life and working conditions of the farm workers.

Publix, describes itself as “the largest… employee-owned supermarket chain in the United States.”  They proclaim their community involvement, volunteerism and commitment to their market areas.  Wouldn’t you think that a worker-owned company would have compassion for other workers, but they also refuse.  They object to joining the Fair Food Program, saying they want that penny wrapped into the whole price and that they do not want the responsibility of paying the worker directly – even though that is the agreement reached by the farm corporations and workers.

You have the power to make a difference, simply by asking the manager of your local Publix and Wendy’s why their company will not sign on.  That one penny could mean the difference between $12,000 a year and $17,000 a year for a worker.  That code of conduct assures equitable conditions in the field, as well as protection against physical and sexual abuse.  Who knew one penny could be so powerful!

At the seder we hold up a slice of matza and proclaim – הא לחמא עניא – This is the bread of affliction our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.  Today I hold up one tomato to remind you that this is the fruit of oppression that still afflicts thousands of workers in our state and country.  You do not need to wait to next year – this year, today you can make a difference to bring freedom and self-sufficiency to the land, to these hard workers seeking dignity.  לשנה הבאה בני חורין – Long before next year may we all rejoice in our freedom.

Here is a link to a letter that can be delivered to the manager of your local Wendy’s:

Here is a link to a letter that can be delivered to the manager of your local Publix: