Abby Myers’ short film “Wendy’s Shabbat” has been the sleeper hit of this year’s Jewish film festival circuit.
This feel-good documentary introduces us to a group of California seniors with an unconventional, but surprisingly spiritual, Kabbalat Shabbat tradition: gathering for a communal dinner at their local Wendy’s.
“Wendy’s Shabbat” is heartwarming, with a message about both do-it-yourself Judaism and the often-overlooked needs of American Jewish seniors. But it omits one critical piece of information: Wendy’s is currently facing a nationwide boycott for its failure to protect human rights in its supply chain. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), with support from T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, has for years urged Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program, a unique partnership among agricultural producers, farm workers, and retail food companies that ensures humane wages and working conditions for the workers who pick fruits and vegetables on participating farms. It harnesses the power of consumer demand to give farm workers a voice in the decisions that affect their lives, and to eliminate the longstanding abuses that have plagued agriculture for generations, from wage theft to sexual assault to forced labor.
Dubbed “one of the great human rights success stories of our day” in the Washington Post, the Fair Food Program has won widespread recognition for its unique effectiveness from a broad spectrum of human rights observers, from the United Nations to the White House. But Wendy’s refuses to join the 14 participating food retailers, including McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, in agreeing to protect workers in its supply chain. Instead, it’s begun buying many of its tomatoes from Mexico, where conditions for agricultural workers are even worse.
In 2014, I joined T’ruah rabbis from around the country in Immokalee, Florida to learn about the Fair Food Program firsthand. What I saw was a living example of the Talmud’s insistence that workers have a right to advocate for themselves. The CIW has turned Florida’s tomato fields from “ground zero” for modern-day slavery into a leading model of human rights protections in the agricultural industry. They won farm workers’ first wage increase in decades, implemented a full-throated program to root out wage theft and exploitation, and instituted a zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy that has drawn the admiration of leaders of the #MeToo movement. As one of T’ruah’s so-called “#tomatorabbis,” I have been inspired by the CIW’s extraordinary success in implementing worker-driven initiatives to protect their own human rights and those of low-wage workers in adjacent industries.
The Fair Food Program is just that — fair. But Wendy’s, unlike every one of its major competitors in the fast-food sector, refuses to participate. So it seem incongruous to me to celebrate Shabbat in a place that neglects its most vulnerable workers. The fourth commandment, which instructs us to observe Shabbat, is meant to remind us that everyone is entitled to basic physical and spiritual needs, calling on us to “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Eternal your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Eternal your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15).
T’ruah stands with the CIW and the farm workers, and we celebrate the seniors featured in Myers’ film, which we understand was independently made, with no funding or support from Wendy’s. But we ask that these seniors continue their sacred gatherings in a different locale. We invite them — and people of faith across the country — to join us in demanding that Wendy’s live up to its moral responsibility to the workers who pick its tomatoes.
Once it does, I will be first in line to buy a Frosty.