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Rachel Kahn-Troster’s daughter Liora does her part in a protest for tomato workers.

It’s no surprise that Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster of Teaneck is trying to make a difference.

After all, in 1979, when she was an infant, her father, Lawrence Troster, then a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a member of a group calling for the ordination of women as rabbis, dressed her in a T-shirt marking her as a member of the JTS class of 2001. (The prediction was slightly off; she was ordained there in 2008.)

And her parents continued to provide a role model. After an initial career in the pulpit, Lawrence Troster has worked as an environmental activist and now is rabbinic director of J Street. Her mother, Elaine Kahn, is a writer and doctoral student in global studies. Like their daughter, they live in Teaneck.

It’s also no surprise that Rachel Kahn-Troster was called to Washington last month to address the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The council has made this year’s focus human trafficking. As director of North American programs for Rabbis for Human Rights – North America, Kahn-Troster has led the Jewish community in fighting against slave labor.

No, the surprise is that in battling a human rights issue that goes back to the Bible, at a time when slavery opponents estimate that between 12 to 17 million men, women, and children are enslaved, Kahn-Troster, RHR, and its allies are able to boast real victories that have made a difference in workers’ lives.

“It’s exciting that such change is happening,” Kahn-Troster said.

In 2009, RHR allied itself with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization of Florida tomato harvesters. Under federal law, farm workers have no right to unionize. And Immokalee, one of south Florida’s largest community’s of farm workers, is “ground zero for modern slavery,” in the words of the local chief assistant U.S. Attorney, as quoted by Barry Estabrook in Tomatoland.

But when Kahn-Troster visited Florida in February, she met with tomato harvesters whose working hours had changed as a result of CIW’s successes in reforming practices in tomato industry.

“It used to be that people were picked up at 4 a.m., hours before their children woke up. They would sit in the field waiting unpaid for five or six hours,” Kahn-Troster said.

Under a code of conduct agreed upon by growers at the behest of major customers who had been pressured by CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food, the workers must be paid for all the time they spend in the fields. “Now there’s no impetus for the crew chief to pick them up so early, so they’re getting to spend times with their kids in the morning,” Kahn-Troster said.

It’s not only working conditions that have changed.

Part of the CIW campaign has called for stores to charge an extra penny a pound for tomatoes, with that penny being passed on to the farm workers.

That’s a marginal price increase for the consumer. But for the farm workers who have been earning fifty cents for a 35 pound bucket of tomatoes, the extra penny is a 70 percent raise. It brings the average annual income from $10,000 to $17,000.

This change in the lives of the Florida farm workers reflects the growing success of the CIW campaign, which has support from a broad coalition of human rights, labor, and religious groups such as RHR.

The core of the campaign is to pressure the large customers of the tomato growers to buy only from suppliers who treat their workers properly.

“The first victory was Taco Bell. Then a bunch of other fast food chains followed: Burger King, McDonald’s, Subway. Whole Foods signed on, and then Trader Joe’s last winter,” Kahn-Troster said.

Last winter, Kahn-Troster and a delegation of 20 rabbis from across the country visited Trader Joe’s first Florida store before it opened to customers. “We hung a symbolic mezuzah for justice and hoped they would sign” CIW’s fair food program, she said.

“The next day they signed.”

She doesn’t credit the mezuzah with the victory, but she does think that the Jewish community she helped organize played a role

“We had sent a letter signed by 100 rabbis, talking about how beloved Trader Joe’s is in the Jewish community. The customers got very involved. They held protests. Within the Jewish community, I think a lot of people have a strong affection to Trader Joe’s because in far-flung communities it’s the only place to buy kosher meat,” she said.

Jewish values, and RHR’s role in advocating them, also played a role when the first tomato growers signed the Fair Food Agreement two years ago, Kahn-Troster believes.

“The first one to sign was a Jewish farmer in Los Angeles whose family has farms in California and Florida. He talked about the role his faith played in his wanting to do the right thing.

While the Jewish community helped, “ultimately the campaign rests on the farm workers and their desire to make a better future for themselves. We’re one of their allies. We take our cues from them.”

Now, the focus is on the Chipotle restaurant chain. Kahn-Troster said that some tomato purchasers say that they agree with the code of conduct; nonetheless, they haven’t signed the agreement.

“The problem for us as consumers is that if there’s not a legally binding agreement, they could change it tomorrow. If a grower was found to be using forced labor they would be suspended from the program, and Whole Foods and McDonald’s could no longer buy from them” but buyers who had not signed could do so.
“That’s a big challenge now,” Kahn-Troster said.

Accompanied by her daughters – Liora, 4½, and Aliza, 2½ – Kahn-Troster has picketed a supermarket in White Plains (Her husband, Dr. Paul Pelavin, is a pediatric endocrinologist at the Valley Hospital in Ridgewood.)

But holding a picket at a demonstration isn’t the only way to change a store’s policy, she said.

“Activism is not always about protest. People can always bring letters to the store manager. On the CIW website [www.ciw-online.org], there’s a letter, explaining the importance of doing the right thing. For many people that’s more comfortable than protesting,” she said.

Rabbis for Human Rights – North America was founded in 2002. In part, it serves as an independent American affiliate and fundraiser for the Israeli Rabbis for Human Rights organization, which was founded in 1988, during the first intifada.

In northern New Jersey, several synagogues take part in the organization’s annual human rights Shabbat program, timed to coincide with Human Rights Day on Dec. 10. That’s the anniversary of the United Nation’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

RHR’s 1,800 rabbinic members represent “about half of the non-Orthodox working rabbinate” in North America and include some Orthodox rabbis as well. A Yeshiva University student was among the four rabbinical students who interned with the organization this summer, spending three days a week “working in a front-line secular human rights organization and learning about human rights on the ground, and two days a week learning from other rabbis and talking about Jewish and secular views on human rights,” Kahn-Troster said.

At the Rabbinical Assembly’s convention in May, the Conservative group passed a resolution drafted by Kahn-Troster endorsing the tomato campaign.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the RA’s executive director, is one of two Jewish representatives on President Barak Obama’s advisory council. The other is the council chair, Susan K. Stern, who is a leader of the Jewish Federations of North America and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Nationally, the anti-trafficking being highlighted by the White House advisory council has its origins in the fight against the global sex trade led by evangelical Christians, “but there’s been a real growing push in the anti-trafficking community to broaden their push to include labor trafficking,” Kahn-Troster said.

“It’s important to talk about how there’s slavery in what we buy and eat every day, but that’s also part of the solution.”

What would she recommend that people or congregations do?

“It’s important to raise awareness of the depth of the problem. The website slaveryfootprint.org is a way to learn about the number of slaves in the supply chain,” she said.

While she’s working to reduce the amount of slave labor in the Florida tomato industry, “it’s been estimated that there are 130 categories of goods from 70 countries that have some slave labor included.

“It’s frustrating for consumers that the onus is on us to know what to buy. It shouldn’t be that we have to look for a slavery-free hechsher,” she said.

But such third-party certification of labor practices is “the gold standard” in human rights.

“One thing people can do is buy Fair Trade products when they’re available. The most commonly available Fair Trade products are coffee and chocolate,” she said, adding that Fair Trade certification is an indication that a product was not produced by slave labor.

She said that when she met recently with Israeli prosecutors and police who were visiting this country to learn about labor trafficking, “one of the things they said to me was that in Israel, many of the mechanisms for fighting trafficking are run by the government, and here they’re run by NGOs.

“It’s important that political activism remain a part of this work,” she said.

But even seemingly noncontroversial efforts have stalled in the present Congress. Kahn-Troster helped put together a Jewish coalition in support of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which first passed in 2000 and has been reauthorized repeatedly since then.

“It used to be a piece of bipartisan legislation where people worked across the aisle to pass it,” she said. “They had disagreements about funding levels and the like, but it usually passed in the Senate by unanimous consent. The 2010 election upset things because so many Republican incumbents who had worked on these issues had lost in their primaries. The traditional relationships that had supported the legislation weren’t there. Now there’s a last-ditch effort to pass it.”

Kahn-Troster said that from an early age she wanted to be a rabbi – that or the second baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays – and saw the profession as a way to combine service for others with teaching and learning.

“My dad has always been outspoken, so I knew that was part of being a rabbi, being willing to engage in the public sphere about the most pressing issues of our time,” she said.

Kahn-Troster got her first nudge in the direction of Rabbis for Human Rights in 2004, when she was in the first group of rabbinical students sent to El Salvador by Association of Jewish World Service.

“Being in El Salvador made me think about the way in which the United States can be culpable for human rights abuses abroad in ways we don’t often think about,” she said. “It’s an important moral question to ask, what are the ways we influence human rights in other countries, both for good and for bad.”

Then, in her senior year of rabbinical school, she had the opportunity to work on RHR’s campaign against torture.

“It was such a tremendous opportunity to engage with the big moral questions of our time. How do we as a country set our own moral agenda? I had been aware of what had happened at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo but didn’t really think about it. At JTS, I don’t think we ever talked about the Iraq war the entire time I was there,” she said.

Her work with the Florida farm workers has been “an eye-opening process.

“I love that I get to work with such great partners. And it’s exciting that such change is happening.

“When we take rabbis to Florida or inspire other rabbis around the country to get involved, we’re not just teaching them about slavery; we’re teaching them that there’s something we can do. Because CIW already had victories, we know we can make a difference. Social action and justice sometimes feels very messianic, but here people have agreed to the right thing. We’ve had victories.

“It’s really inspiring when you know you’ve made a difference,” she said.