Today, December 10th, is the annual International Human Rights Day, dating back to 1950 when the United Nations General Assembly voted for such a day to bring to the attention ‘of the peoples of the world’ the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We don’t simply acknowledge Human Rights Day. We don’t just celebrate Human Rights. We act. I previously mentioned how the Jacksonville Jewish Center celebrated Human Rights this past Shabbat, as part of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights’ Human Rights Shabbat. More Impactful though then our communal Shabbat experience was participating in an action for social justice and Human Rights with the students of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School on Friday, December 6th, in preparation for International Human Rights Day.
Every Friday afternoon, the students of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School Middle School end their week with a “mitzvah project,” a volunteer activity that emphasizes the Jewish imperative to participate in acts of social action and social justice. An important lesson for our Middle School students is understanding the difference between social action and social justice, understanding the difference between helping those in need by providing them with something, and advocating for a societal change and policy shift to fulfill God’s demand in Deuteronomy 15:4 that “there shall be no needy.” Both are necessary and equally important if we are to be God’s partners in creation.
I spent this past year sharing with these students my previous experiences as part of a T’ruah rabbinic delegation to Immakolee, Florida. Immakolee, approximately four hours from Jacksonville, is home to America’s tomato fields. A large percentage of the fresh tomatoes we eat come from the southwestern part of our state. Upon arriving with other rabbis to Immakolee, I learned about the horrors that migrant workers in the fields have previously dealt with: there have been instances in which the farmworkers were enslaved to growers through coercion, force, assault, fraud, and debt. The Coalition of Immakolee Workers (CIW) has worked hard to put an end to such practices in surrounding tomato fields through the Fair Food Program. Having corporations commit to participating in the FFP is a sign that they too are committed to human rights and that their produce is just. As CIW explains, slavery is the extreme end of a continuum of abusive and exploitative labor practices. The Fair Food Program strives to eradicate slavery and such exploitative practices from our midst.
The top five fast-food companies in the nation are: McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s. All but Wendy’s have signed on to participate in the Fair Food Program. Wendy’s has not only refused to sign on; they have refused to sit down with the CIW and hear about the exploitative practices that they are supporting by continuing to buy such tomatoes. After spending several months learning about the Coalition of Immakolee Workers and the plight of the migrant workers in these tomato fields, our students took action to make a change.
Our students discussed the importance of participating in such an action. Although Wendy’s is not kosher and thus, it is not a restaurant that we as an institution would eat in, it is a corporation that is a staple of our nation. Furthermore, it is a restaurant that stands for quality, respect, and doing the right thing. If they are not taking a stand for human rights, then we must.
Our action began by skyping with representatives from CIW ally, Interfaith Action. Such a conversation (even if it was over the internet) empowered our students and gave context to the action they were to participate in.
We then discussed talking points and made posters and signs to prepare for our trip to a local Wendy’s. We would never put our students in a dangerous situation. We ensured that there was proper parental and staff supervision. Additionally, we also called the restaurant ahead of time. Our task was not to be a menace. Our task was to raise awareness and engage in meaningful conversations to create change. The manager of the restaurant was aware that we were coming and was happy to meet with us and hear our students express their concerns about the exploitation of workers in Florida tomato fields. After explaining to the manager the need for Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program, our students handed her signed letters from T’ruah, urging her to pass the letters along to her bosses and the corporate office. Our voices were heard and she assured us that she would speak to the corporate office and share our concerns.
We then left and gathered our posters and signs to raise awareness and take action outside of the restaurant. The manager was also
aware that we would be participating in such an action outside the store and welcomed it, emphasizing our right to educate and our freedom of speech and expression. As cars and individuals passed by, we made them aware of the Fair Food Program and the need for Wendy’s to join! Our students felt inspired. As a rabbi, I was even more inspired, watching them take action, prepared to fight for the rights – for the Human Rights – of other individuals. This is a cause that may not have directly affected them, but it very much did because they understood that we are each made in God’s image so our lives are all sacred and interconnected. This was just one afternoon and one action, but it was an afternoon that inspired me, as I now believe that these Middle School students – these future leaders of the Jewish community – will continue to not just learn of our tradition, but also live the ethics and values of our tradition and ensure equality and Human Rights for all.
The American Jewish community has stood up for the Human Rights of others for as long as we’ve been a part of this country. Taking such a stand in our community is often highlighted by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm-in-arm with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery during the Civil Rights Movement. Taking a stand and participating in social justice issues is what it means to be a Jew. Rabbi Heschel famously shared that when he was marching with Dr. King, he was “praying with his feet.” On Friday afternoon, our Middle School students took a stand for Human Rights and prayed with their feet.
– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky