Interfaith Worker Justice

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First Night of Hanukkah

First Night of Hanukkah

by Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster
Director of Programs for T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights

Early one morning a few weeks ago, I stood in a tomato field and witnessed something that looked mundane on the surface but was miraculous: the Coalition of Immokalee Workers was training a group of workers on their rights under the Fair Food Program. As I listened to the CIW explaining the protections gained under the FFP—including the right to report abuses without fear of retaliation, and zero tolerance policies for wage theft, violence, and sexual harassment—the relaxed attitudes of both workers and management suggested a normalcy to the presentation on human rights I was hearing. But actually this presentation about worker rights—happening on company property on company time, given by a worker-led organization to their peers—was remarkable, both within the history of labor organizing as a whole and knowing the decades-long struggle of CIW that led to this moment. For years, the CIW—the supposedly powerless workers—had faith that if they demanded that the powerful growers recognize their fundamental dignity and the need for human rights in the field, that they could win against all odds. Partnering with allies—consumers, students, and many thousands of people of faith—the few became the many, and the faith that change was possible became the celebration of a new day for farmworkers under the Fair Food Program.

I was grateful to be shadowing CIW with Chanukah on the horizon. In the popular imagination, the miracle of Chanukah is divine: the oil that was supposed to burn for only one night lasted for eight. But the true miracle of Chanukah is the power of human beings to achieve great deeds through faith: the victory of the determined Maccabees, against all odds, over the larger and more powerful Syrian army. The story of Chanukah is about strategic resistance and a belief in the strength of fundamental values. And this is also what I have learned through my involvement with the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food and through seeing human rights take root in the tomato fields of Florida since the implementation of the FFP in 2011. If you believe that new worlds are possible, then you can overturn giants, whether they are mighty armies of the past or the grocery and fast food behemoths of today.

Last year, when Human Rights Shabbat fell on Chanukah, T’ruah adapted traditional Jewish liturgy for the holiday to write a modern human rights kavannah (intention) about CIW. It includes a quote from the prophet Hosea that symbolizes T’ruah’s #TomatoRabbis campaign in support of CIW: “Plant righteousness for yourselves, harvest the fruits of goodness.” (10:12) Part of what I love about this verse is that it insists that we must be agents of our own change: to truly change the world, we must plant for ourselves the harvest we hope someday to see. The CIW embodies that philosophy. The Fair Food Program is a Worker-driven Social Responsibility model, grounded in the leadership and expertise of those with the most to lose when human rights abuses occur: the workers themselves.

Over 20 years ago, the Maccabees of the tomato fields began planting seeds of human rights; now, workers are enjoying a harvest of goodness and light. They are living out the promise conveyed in Psalms: Light is planted for the righteous and radiant joy for the upright.” (Psalms 97:11)

Tonight, as Jews and their friends and families everywhere gather to light the chanukiah and celebrate liberation and that human beings can achieve the miraculous in our day just as they did in the past, I encourage you to recite these words of thanksgiving:

Who will retell the great deeds of the workers, who will count them? In every generation, heroic leaders arise to continue leading workers towards their redemption. May it be Your will that the farmworkers who have achieved such victories continue to prevail for all time, And may they spread their sukkah of justice over all farmworkers. As the prophet Hosea said, “Plant righteousness for yourself, harvest the fruits of goodness.” (10:12) Blessed are You ETERNAL ONE, who sprouts the seeds of redemption.