From Egypt To Immokalee
Tue, 06/19/2012
Staff Writer
In Immokalee, Fla., the country’s major tomato-growing site, the visiting rabbis meet with local workers.
In Immokalee, Fla., the country’s major tomato-growing site, the visiting rabbis meet with local workers.

Part of Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster’s fight against modern-day slavery is professional.

As a major goal of her work as director of North American Programs for the continent’s branch of the Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) organization, where she coordinates a national educational and lobbying effort, she is responsible for raising consciousness of the issue.

And part of her fight is personal. How she buys bananas.

For years, when she went shopping at a Whole Foods supermarket near her home in northern New Jersey, she faced a dilemma. Should she buy bananas that came to market under Fair Trade supervision, indicating that they probably were not part of an agricultural process that included slave-like or sweatshop conditions? Or buy organic bananas, which probably are healthier than non-organic bananas? For a long time, it was either-or. “I was forced to choose,” she says. In the end, she chose the organic bananas; her family’s health comes first.

Her dilemma ended six months ago, when Whole Foods started stocking Fair Food organic bananas. In good conscience, she can now buy bananas that meet her ethical and dietary standards. “I can get both.”

Count it as a victory for her and for the wider anti-slavery movement.

On the staff of RHR since 2007, Rabbi Kahn-Troster has become the voice — and increasingly, the face — of the American Jewish community’s growing involvement in the mission to end international slavery. A wide range of NGOs and government bodies, as high up as the State Department — which issues an annual report on the subject — have in recent years embraced the issue, which in many circles is better known as in its contemporary argot, human trafficking, the practice of taking people against their will across borders or within countries to work as prostitutes or domestic workers, construction laborers or farm hands.

Had she lived a century ago, Rabbi Kahn-Troster, 33, a 2008 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary who was named one of The Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36” emerging Jewish leaders last year, would be known as an abolitionist. But abolition isn’t the goal today. “Most countries have laws against slavery.” Laws that are overtly or covertly flouted. Slavery takes place “in all kinds of industries,” in varying degrees in nearly every country; many countries allow the sale of products that are made in conditions of slavery or near-slavery.

That’s why the rabbi has to shop so carefully.

She tells the story of a fellow rabbi with whom she was speaking recently. “You know, food justice is just something I don’t want to look at,” he told her, “because once I do, once I know the problems and human rights abuses in every stage of production, I’m just going to be paralyzed every time I go to the grocery store.”

Rabbi Kahn-Troster understands the feeling. “After all, that’s what it’s like to go grocery shopping with me — and none of us want to think about child slavery in the Ivory Coast as we eat a chocolate bar.”

Today, the rabbi, whose RHR (rhr-na.org) portfolio also includes opposition to torture and to indefinite detention, and combating discrimination against Muslims, organizes a Human Rights Shabbat, provides sample sermons and teaching materials, creates a Jewish handbook on human trafficking and forms coalitions with other like-minded religious groups. “It’s important to draw attention to the issue.”

She calls herself an educator and activist. She prefers talking with corporate executives or supermarket managers rather than yelling at them. “You really have to engage with the store.” Assuming they are willing to listen. Or act. “Companies need to be taught that we expect tzedek [social responsibility] first and tzedakah [conspicuous contributions to charity] second,” she recently blogged on shma.com. “But fewer corporations are willing to … deal with root causes [of slavery]. To truly end slavery, we have to be willing to fight poverty, and few corporations are willing to acknowledge their role in creating or sustaining poverty.”

As leader of two rabbinical delegations that were thrown out of grocery stores in Florida where they were passing out flyers and talking to shoppers and holding “prayer circles” in the produce department in the last year, Rabbi Kahn-Troster has not risked personal harm for serving as an advocate for the powerless. She has not been threatened with violence or been arrested. “I see myself as an activist. I don’t see myself getting arrested.”

For Rabbi Kahn-Troster, who grew up in Toronto as the daughter of a socially involved pulpit rabbi and always aspired to follow in his footsteps, her commitment to the anti-slavery issue is both political (legislation that RHR and its allied organizations advocate) and personal (the stores we patronize, the products we purchase). And she is working to make that issue — a still “largely invisible human rights atrocity” — the Jewish community’s.

“It’s a uniquely Jewish issue. It’s an obviously Jewish issue,” she says at her desk in HRH’s spartan office space in Midtown Manhattan. Jews think about slavery at Passover, when liberation from Egypt is the theme of the seder — it should be on people’s minds the rest of the year, the rabbi says. “The legacy of Egypt is that you should be compassionate to the people who are most vulnerable.”

She quotes the figures: according to experts’ estimates, an estimated 12 million to 27 million people around the world — the figure in the United States is about 15,000 — work as slaves today, in agricultural fields or brothels or factories or army units, held against their wills in debt bondage, coerced to endure unsafe and torturous conditions, bullied by threats against their families. Many live in squalid conditions, or under the skies, bound to their employers by psychological torture or intimidation or the deprivation of passports.

“People don’t have to be [physically] chained up,” as in the antebellum South, to be considered slaves,  Rabbi Kahn-Troster says, calling slavery “the extreme end of a continuum of an exploitative workplace. There are more people enslaved today than at any point in human history,” she writes on the RHR website. “Slave-produced raw materials are found in the supply chains of the clothes we buy and the food we eat.”

“We all benefit from it,” she says.

It’s slow work, getting the American Jewish community to take on contemporary slavery as a top priority, says the rabbi. RHR adopted the cause, she says, because no other major Jewish organization was doing it on a sustained basis. Today, she says, she finds more support among individual Jews and Jewish organizations. “It has been growing as an issue.”

Because of modern-day slavery’s primary association with forced prostitution (i.e., sexual slavery), “this has been seen for a long time as a ‘women’s issue’ — they get marginalized,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster says. “It’s still seen [in some circles] as a niche issue.”

Because of the work of RHR and its partner organizations, two national grocery chains (Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods) as well as such firms as Burger King and Taco Bell and 90 percent of Florida’s tomato growers have signed a Fair Food agreement that calls for improved working conditions, zero tolerance for human trafficking and sexual harassment and a payment of an additional penny per pound for tomatoes picked by workers, which raises the average daily worker’s wage “to a level approaching [the official] minimum wage.”

Because of the organizations’ work, the facts of modern-day slavery have become more common knowledge in the Jewish community, Rabbi Kahn-Troster says. “We don’t have to convince people that this is a Jewish issue. The most frequent comment she hears: “Of course we’re against slavery. But what can we do?”

“We have to convince them,” she says, “what they can do about it.”

Here’s what she suggests: lobby for national and state anti-slavery legislation. Urge supermarkets to sign Fair Food agreements. Shop selectively.

“You have to be an educated consumer,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster says.

She can point to a growing number of congregations that participate in Human Rights Shabbat or use Fair Food products for shul activities, as well as rabbis who have become energized to join the anti-slavery crusade. “I consider it a victory when your work inspires people who are not politically involved generally to become active.”

“Rabbi Kahn-Troster has spearheaded our efforts to raise awareness of slavery and human trafficking in the Jewish community,” says Rabbi Charles Feinberg, co-chair of the board of Rabbis for Human Rights-NA. “Through her efforts she has inspired rabbis to take stands on these issues from the pulpit as well as to get involved on the local level,” demonstrating that “being against slavery and human traffic is neither a liberal or conservative issue.”

Rabbi Feinberg, in an e-mail interview, says Rabbi Kahn-Troster “sees the pursuit of social justice as being at the heart of the Jewish enterprise.”

She recently led her second rabbinical delegation to Immokalee, a farm workers’ community in southwest Florida known as the tomato capital of the country. Each time, the rabbis spent time with farm workers and at groceries stores that had not signed a Fair Trade agreement.

Back at home she faces another shopping conundrum. She needs kosher chocolate chips for Shabbos snacks she bakes. The Fair Food ones are pareve; those that aren’t Fair Food are dairy. Her preference is dairy chocolate chips.

So she buys Fair Food dairy chocolate bars and breaks them into chip-sized pieces.

“The choice of what chips I buy isn’t going to end slavery,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster says. The manufacturers, other shoppers, probably don’t know how she makes her shopping decisions. As her young daughters get older, they will learn how their mother practices in the grocery aisle what she preaches in the office. “It’s important to me,” an anti-slavery activist, “because I know about these things.”