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For Those Still Enslaved, Tomato Symbolizes Solidarity

Last year I put a tomato on my Seder plate. I invite you this year to consider doing the same.

The retelling of our liberation story at Passover is powerful, but we deepen the sense of the story through tasting it symbolically. We ingest the bitterness of slavery through the maror. The saltiness of the tears of oppression stings our throats. The haste of leaving Egypt is baked into the crisp matzo. The earthiness of the parsley guides us to savor the promise of spring. Our Seder plate helps us literally digest our story.

The symbolic struggle told by the Passover story is so relevant to so many contemporary stories of injustice. It makes sense that we find ways to demonstrate this connection symbolically on our Seder plate. The modern-day slavery that we find in our country, in our own backyards, and of which we reap the benefits at our neighborhood grocery store, is the connection that feels most present to me.

After a trip with the organization T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights to the tomato fields of Immokalee, Fla., to meet with the farm workers who are a part of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their partner, Interfaith Action, I added a tomato onto my Seder plate to remind me of this modern-day slavery.

We gathered to bear witness, to learn from the workers and to strategize about what our communities could do to help change a broken system that exploits the most vulnerable. We opened our eyes and heard the stories that brought to life the facts.

In the most extreme conditions, farm workers have been held against their will and forced to work for little or no pay, facing conditions that meet the stringent standards for prosecution under modern-day slavery statutes. In the past 15 years, there have been at least 10 slavery operations successfully prosecuted in Florida, affecting well over 1,000 workers.

These violations do not occur in a vacuum, but rather at the far end of a system of abuse faced by farm workers, including sub-poverty earnings, intentional debt-peonage, the denial of common workplace protections and the prevalence of sexual harassment, verbal abuse and wage theft.

The tomato is a symbol of how much of our food still tastes like slavery. It’s a reminder that it’s my responsibility to confront this injustice and not live with ignorance. The tomato reminds me that I can be either complicit or part of a solution.

There is a campaign to get more farms to sign on to the Fair Food Agreement, enforcing more safety protections and a higher wage, and to demand that our markets and restaurants practice ethical buying standards. Similarly, supporting commonsense immigration reform will help alleviate the threat keeping many caught in a dangerous cycle.

Putting a tomato on the Seder plate is one step toward becoming aware. For me, the other symbols tell the story of slavery past. The tomato reminds me that there is a story unfolding today and it is happening here.

Joshua Lesser is the rabbi of Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta, Georgia.

The Perennial Plate visited the tomato fields of Immokalee, Fla., check out their video below

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