Jews and Agricultural Labor
Discover the little-known history of American Jewish farming and explore the contemporary resurgent Jewish interest in food justice. Analyze traditional and modern texts about Jewish values and food production and consumption, and design your own vision for how society should produce, distribute, and consume food.
- Jewish values about the holiness of growing food lose or gain prominence depending on economic realities.
- Jews have labored in agricultural settings as well as in factories and urban environments.
- In recent years, there has been a renaissance in Jewish agricultural work as a means to providing food options that are healthy, sustainable, and just.
- What Jewish values influence choices about growing, buying, and consuming food?
- How do economic conditions influence choices about growing food?
- What precedents exist for the contemporary Jewish return to the land movement?
- How are Jewish values applied to food production and consumption, historically and today?
- What is/has been the role of agricultural labor to the American Jewish community?
- copies of the Jewish Statements About Food handout for each student
- copies of the Lesson 6 Document Study, Jewish Statements About Food: Then and Now (includes sources and questions) for the teacher and for each group
- paper for making charts
- newsprint or scrap paper for sketching out ideas
- sculpting clay
- cardboard (broken-down boxes without writing on them would work well) to serve as the bases for models
- toy farm machinery and animals, dirt and plant matter, and other model-making materials such as popsicle sticks, balsa wood, and flexible cardboard, for example, all of which could be assigned to students to bring in for their individual projects
Notes to Teacher
This lesson on Jewish agriculture in America includes several themes. Teachers may choose to focus on just one, several, or all of the following ideas.
- First, Jewish agricultural pursuits are a little-known part of American and American Jewish history. The accompanying essay addresses four periods in this history, from the late 19th century to today. This theme can be explored exclusively, as well as by comparing primary sources on agricultural labor with industrial labor (see Lesson 1 and Lesson 2).
- A second theme addresses questions about personal health regarding food choices.
- Thirdly, the lesson explores the connections between food and Jewish spirituality and ethics. Again, comparisons can be made with Jewish values about labor that are explored in Lessons 1 and 8. Closely connected to this theme are ideas about Jews’ connection to the land and to each other in community, as expressed in American Jewish farmers’ historic settlement practices. Another aspect of this theme is the question of popular attitudes toward immigrants in the dominant culture, which could be explored with students in conjunction with Lesson 7.
- The fourth theme in this lesson explores values about the treatment of laborers and the religious significance of agricultural labor. This last theme is easily tied in with some of the issues discussed in Lesson 8, which looks at questions of the value of work in traditional Jewish sources.
Teachers should be sure that students understand what is meant by “utopia” and “utopian.” Our intention here is to acknowledge that utopian ideals may not be achievable but may, nevertheless, be important to hold up as ideals toward which we are working. A synonym for “utopian” is “edenic.” Like the Garden of Eden, utopian values may be beyond our reach yet psychologically worthwhile to hold onto. Utopian values guided the formation of 19th and 20th century Jewish farm communities, and in some cases may also have been responsible for the ultimate downfall of those communities.
Depending on your students’ (and your own) experience studying traditional Jewish texts, you may wish to give some background on the different sources featured in Part I of the lesson. Teachers may also find it helpful to brainstorm a list of values on the board or a large piece of paper so students have something to choose from as they categorize each of the texts.
Some teachers have suggested to us that the text from Avot de Rabbi Natan, while a very rich text, is difficult to teach to kids or teens because they find the breastfeeding imagery too distracting. You may want to take this recommendation into consideration when selecting texts from the Jewish Statements about Food to use with your students.
Farm Bill Resources from American Jewish World Service
- Read articles about the Farm Bill on the Global Voices blog.
- Test your knowledge on the Farm Bill, or take this quiz as a class.
- This brief PDF outlines the content and purpose of the Farm Bill as well as the passage process.
- Sign the Jewish Petition for a Just Farm Bill and join other Jews in calling for the creation of a food system that reflects our community’s vision and values.
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How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Jews and Agricultural Labor." (Viewed on August 24, 2019) <https://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/labor/jews-and-agricultural-labor>.