Rabbis for Human Rights – North America Visit to Immokalee, FL September 14, 2011


Traveling from New York, Boston, California, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Miami and several other cities throughout the country, a delegation of 15 rabbis and two rabbinical students came to Immokalee Tuesday for a visit organized by Rabbis for Human Rights-North America (RHR-NA). RHR-NA focuses a great deal of its efforts on the fight against modern-day slavery, and the delegation came to Immokalee to learn from the CIW about our work against forced labor and for a future of dignity in Florida’s tomato industry.
In the picture above, Nely Rodriguez speaks with the delegation about a key moment in CIW history and in the movement against violence in the fields — an incident in 1996 when a young worker was beaten in the fields by his boss and walked back to Immokalee. He showed up at the CIW office still wearing the bloody shirt above, and his courage in denouncing his boss sparked a 500-person march to the crewleader’s house that marked a fundamental shift in relations between workers and field bosses in Immokalee.

The visit was coordinated on the Immokalee end by Brigitte Gynther (above, left) of Interfaith Action, the faith community organizing arm of the Campaign for Fair Food. Here, Brigitte joins Jon Esformes of Pacific Tomato Growers — whose company reached an agreement with the CIW last year around this time, clearing the way for the rest of the Florida tomato industry to follow suit soon thereafter — at Pacific’s farm just outside of Immokalee. Jon and Pacific’s Human Resources team graciously offered to host a visit to the fields so that the RHR-NA delegation might see first-hand the difficult working conditions faced by Florida farmworkers and the ongoing partnership between Pacific Tomato Growers and the CIW to help improve and modernize those conditions.

The visit also provided at least one opportunity for old friends to reminisce! Here, one member of the RHR-NA delegation, Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei, who now lives in Miami shares memories of time spent together several years ago in Los Angeles with Jon Esformes of Pacific.

Then it was time to see the fields. Delegation members saw first-hand the hard work that takes place before any picking of tomatoes even starts — the planting of tens of thousands of tomato plants in Florida’s September heat.

Following the visit to the fields, the group returned to Pacific’s main office just in time for the Minchaservice, afternoon prayers. The group gathered under the shade of a large tree for the afternoon prayers, the very same tree where CIW members and representatives of Pacific had gathered just to announce their new partnership last October.

Later in the afternoon, the group gathered for more prayers… this time at Publix. Here Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of RHR-NA (left), who earlier penned an excellent piece on Tader Joe’s for the Huffington Post (“Rotten Tomatoes: Trader Joe’s and the Jewish Ethic for Farmworker Justice,” 2/21/11) prepares to gather the group. While many of the rabbis were from around the country, there was a sizeable contingent from Florida who led the way to Publix’s produce section, where everyone looked at the tomatoes with new eyes, now conscious of all the work that had gone into getting that tomato to Publix and necessity of ensuring improved wages and conditions.


The rabbis gathered to form a prayer circle and began to share their prayers for a better world for all, especially those who toil in the fields. Each person who offered a prayer spoke movingly of the day’s experience, praying for the farmworkers who work day in and day out in the fields and for courage to bring their values into the marketplace. Here, Rabbi Klein from Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice in Los Angeles, leads a powerful prayer about justice and dignity. After offering prayers in English, the group began to sing beautifully in Hebrew.

The prayerful singing went unnoticed for some time but eventually Publix management began to gather. Rabbi Singer explained spoke with them for some time about the prayer circle and urged Publix to do its part to bring about fair wages and conditions for farmworkers. She also delivered a letter signed by all the rabbis.

The Rabbi’s explanation didn’t go over so well with Publix management, and the group was eventually asked to leave the store.

While they had to leave, the group was not deterred but more determined than ever to continue forward in prayer and action until Publix– and other supermarkets such as Trader Joe’s — agree to work with the CIW and join the Fair Food Program. With the harvest holiday of Sukkot coming up in October, they began planning how to take what they had learned back to their synagogues and communities to amplify the call for Trader Joe’s and Publix to work with the CIW for real, verifiable change for Florida’s worst-paid, least-protected workers.