Jews and Agricultural Labor

Unit 1, Lesson 6

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.


Enduring Understandings

  • 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.

Essential Questions

  • 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?

Materials Required

  • 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
  • pens/pencils
  • newsprint or scrap paper for sketching out ideas
  • sculpting clay
  • markers
  • cardboard (broken-down boxes without writing on them would work well) to serve as the bases for models
  • glue
  • 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.

  1. 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).
  2. A second theme addresses questions about personal health regarding food choices.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Introductory essay(s)

Jews and Farming in America

by Lori Shaller and Judith Rosenbaum

Introductory Essay for Living the Legacy, Labor, Lesson 6

The history of Jewish farmers in the U.S. is not widely known. We often assume that all Jewish immigrants to America went to cities, found work, and stayed there. If Jews eventually moved out to the suburbs, their work was still city-based. We don’t usually think of Jews settling in rural communities and making their living in agriculture. Yet there has been a continuous, if small, Jewish farming presence in the U.S. for more than 100 years. In 1911, there were an estimated 5,000 Jewish farmers in the U.S.; in 1925, there were an estimated 10,000 Jewish farming families or 50,000 Jews living on and working farms in the U.S.; and by 1966, when the number of Jews in agriculture was declining, there were still an estimated 7,000 Jewish farmers.[1]

We can identify four distinct periods in the history of Jews in agriculture in the U.S. In the late 19th century, utopian farming communities were established by Eastern European Jewish immigrants with the philanthropic backing of American Jews. During the period from 1900 until World War II, many of the utopian communities failed, but some individual Jewish farmers succeeded by increasing and modernizing their agricultural output and methods. In the 1970s and 1980s, a group of young, idealistic, middle class Jews became organic farmers as a means of disengaging from the corporate culture of agribusiness, and many of their farms have not only flourished but have themselves become large corporations. Finally, since the turn of the 21st century, a new generation of Jewish men and women have begun a Jewish back-to-the-land movement to incorporate Jewish values and spirituality into their agricultural labor and environmental activism.

In the late 19th century, before coming to America, a group of Russian Jews became involved in a back-to-the-folk movement popular among Russian intellectuals at that time. Some had gone to live and work among the peasantry. It was a romantic movement, rooted in the idea that the peasants’ simple, down-to-earth lifestyle was healthier for the body and the spirit than urban living. As widespread, institutionalized anti-Semitism swept through Russia, these Jewish intellectuals came to realize that they would never achieve their dreams in Russia and they sought alternative locations for their utopian settlements, some going to Palestine to take part in the Zionist settlement of the land and others coming to America.

At the same moment that this group of Russian Jews aspired to a utopian ideal of living off the land, a group of American Jews whose families had immigrated decades earlier primarily from Germany developed the idea that some of the masses of new Jewish immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe ought to be settled on farms, rather than in crowded cities. They created the American Hebrew Agricultural and Horticultural Association, and with money partly donated by the German Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch, the founder of the Jewish Colonization Association and the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society (which would become the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society or HIAS and for decades helped settle Jewish immigrants in America), they began to establish Jewish agricultural colonies all over the country.[2] (Baron de Hirsch’s Jewish Colonization Association also founded large Jewish agricultural colonies in Palestine, Argentina, and Canada.)

Jewish agricultural collectives were established in Kansas, Louisiana, Utah, New York, California, Oregon, North and South Dakota, Florida, Michigan, Arkansas, and New Jersey. Many of the collectives failed in a very short time, such as the Cotopaxi collective in Colorado that lasted only two years. Others, such as the Alliance and Woodbine agricultural colonies in New Jersey, were able to function for twenty years or more, partly because they included a certain amount of industrial production in addition to agriculture.[3]

The Jewish Agricultural Society, which administered the work of the American Hebrew Agricultural and Horticultural Association, realized that part of the problem with the colonies was their collective nature. In the U.S., immigrants expected to be able to make their fortunes based on their own efforts and not have to share their profits with others. The Society stopped funding collectives and funded only individual farmers from the 1920s on. They also focused their efforts first in New York and New Jersey and then in California, in communities near large Jewish, urban populations. In such locations, these farmers could also take in boarders in the summer—urban Jews looking for a quiet, rural vacation away from the city—and thereby supplement their income.

By the 1930s, significantly-sized Jewish communities had grown up around farming towns like Farmingdale, New Jersey. The farmers built synagogues and community centers, held religious services, and celebrated Jewish holidays together. During the Depression, they raised money to help those in need, and during the years of World War II, they collected money, knitted, and sent care packages to Jews overseas. They also absorbed some of the Displaced Persons who arrived in the U.S. and were willing to work on farms. Indeed, some of these D.P.s even established their own farms, with the help of the Jewish Agricultural Society.

After World War II, American farming changed. Small farms were bought out by “agribusinesses,” large farms that had the financial capacity to buy lots of land and to modernize and mechanize many aspects of agricultural work. Few Jewish farmers were able to do this; some of those unable to make a living on small farms went into feed and agricultural machinery sales. In the post-War period, many Jewish farmers found that they could make a better living growing chickens than crops; many of these chicken farms survived into the 1960s.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a new group of Jews entered farming. Young Jews who had grown up largely in suburban environments but were interested in pursuing a different lifestyle began to explore organic farming and other alternative food projects, such as food co-ops. Organic farming appealed to them for health and environmental reasons, and they embraced the challenge of producing food with a smaller ecological footprint and without the health risks of food treated with pesticides. Individuals such as Gary Hirshberg, Drew and Myra Goodman, and Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield started out as small, organic farmers whose businesses were so successful that they have grown into the huge corporations Stonyfield Yogurt, Earthbound Farm, and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.

In the past decade, yet another generation of idealistic young Jews has come onto the agricultural scene. For the founders of new Jewish farms and food justice organizations such as KOL Foods, Adamah, Urban Adamah, Hazon, the Jewish Farm School, Kayam, Grow and Behold, and EcoGlatt, the production, distribution and consumption of food is a sacred act, bound up in Jewish ritual and theology. These organizations are also concerned with such issues as safe working conditions, living wage, humane treatment of animals, pollution prevention, and sustainable farming techniques that replenish rather than deplete soil nutrients. They are also using their farms, cooperatives, and organizations to teach Jewish values about these issues from Jewish texts, both ancient and modern. Finally, they are interested in forming communities of like-minded Jews who wish to imbue the growing and consuming of food with holiness and spiritual intention.


[1]Herman J. Levine and Benjamin Miller, The American Jewish Farmer in Changing Times (New York: The Jewish Agricultural Society, Inc. 1966) 19, 21, 50.

[2]Jews in American Agriculture: The History of Farming by Jews in the United States (The Jewish Agricultural Society, Inc. 1954), published on the occasion of the American Jewish tercentenary.

[3]Uri D. Herscher, Jewish Agricultural Utopias in America, 1880-1910 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991), 123.

Lesson plan

Jewish Values and Food

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Below is a list of statements about food that come from Biblical, Rabbinic, and modern sources. For this first activity using the statements, the teacher should use his or her judgment with regard to which sources and how many sources to give to each student or group. The teacher can give all the statements to all of the students, choose just a few of the statements to give to all of the students, etc. If a teacher is dividing the sources up, it would be most useful to give each group/student a mix of traditional and modern texts. Important: give students the handout version of the statements, which does not identify the source of each excerpt; the citations are for the teacher’s use and should be revealed to the students only after they have had a chance to hypothesize about them.

Before giving students the statements about Jewish values and food, tell students that they will do three things with the statements:

  • Hypothesize about what time period the statement comes from;
  • Hypothesize about who may have said it or from what source or type of source it came from, eg. “Moshe,” “the Bible,” “Deuteronomy;” “Pirkei Avot,” “the ancient rabbis,” “prayers in the siddur, in the Haggadah”, etc.
  • Categorize the value(s) implied in the quotation, eg. “kashrut,” “gratitude,” “self-sufficiency,” “compassion,” “stewardship,” “health,” “environmentalism,” “fairness,” etc.

They might keep track of their responses to these three questions by drawing a simple chart with three columns, one each for “Time,” “Source,” and “Values,” and a row for each statement.

Once students have had a chance to work with the sources and have made their hypotheses and categories, have them share their responses in the large group. Help them to round out their understandings about what is being said in each statement and correct any misunderstandings about the sources that may have arisen, by giving them the references for each source and additional information you have from the Introductory Essay. Teachers might also have students read the introductory essay themselves. The Lesson 6 Document Study Jewish Statements about Food: Then and Now includes questions to pose for each statement, as well as some additional information about the content of some of the sources. Additional information can be gleaned from the Introductory Essay.

Creating a Utopian Vision for Food Production, Distribution, and Consumption

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Explain to students that they are going to create their own utopian visions about food. In order to do so, they should think about food production, distribution, and consumption. Teachers might choose to have students look at some websites dedicated to historic Jewish utopian agrarian communities to get ideas for their projects. A few of these include:

Ask students to look at the “values” category they created in Part 1 of the lesson and to prioritize those values in order of importance to them individually. Students should only include those values on the list that are important to them and should be encouraged to add any additional values that matter to them and were not on the list.

Have students break into pairs to share the values they’ve listed and to flesh out what it would mean to live those values. Explain to the students that when listening to their partners, they should 1) ask clarifying questions; 2) make suggestions to strengthen their partner’s utopian vision; 3) point out to their partners when they are hearing conflicting ideas; and 4) refrain from pushing their own utopian visions on their partners.

Direct students to sketch out their ideas, either in pictures or in words. Teachers should check students’ sketches to be sure they include all the values they decided were important to them, and teachers should engage students in conversations about their work if some values come in conflict with others. When teachers feel satisfied that students’ sketches are adequately fleshed out, have students transfer their visions into written manifestos, drawings, or models. Invite students to bring in objects they’d like to include in their models, or assign students to complete their models at home and then to bring them into class.

Taking Action: Dreams to Reality

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Acknowledge with students that it may take some time to be able to live (or even get close to living) their utopian values, but that there are probably things they can do now that would bring them closer to those ideas.

Assign students to work in pairs to identify three actions they could each take now to begin living their utopian visions. Some examples include:

  • If the student’s vision is to eat food that does not hurt the environment, they might begin by eliminating a few items from their diet that have to travel more than 100 miles to their tables.
  • If they’re concerned about animal welfare, they might research becoming vegetarian, or research kosher meat companies that are engaging in only humane slaughtering techniques, or begin by reducing the amount of meat in their diets.
  • If they’re committed to eating food that is produced by agricultural laborers who are treated justly, they might research the labor practices of different companies and get involved with campaigns like the 2011-12 work with the tomato growers of Immokalee, FL.

Students should be encouraged to focus on small, personal steps they can commit to (and that will likely be more acceptable to their parents) rather than beginning with the larger, harder to attain goals.

After discussion in pairs, invite students to share their manifestos, drawings, and models with the whole group, along with some of actions they have identified for immediate change. Capture these "immediate actions" in writing and encourage students to help one another think of ways to live by their ideals in their current lives. Teachers may choose to save the list, post it in the classroom, or share it with parents via email or a class website.

Over the next months, teachers can have periodic check-ins with students to discuss their progress toward achieving their goals regarding food production, distribution, and consumption. Teachers may also realize that some common goals materialize amongst the students. These may a present a rich opportunity to do a project or take action as a whole class.

Document studies

Jewish statements about Food: Then and Now

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Genesis/Bereishit 1:26-30

כו וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ; וְיִרְדּוּ בִדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל-הָאָרֶץ, וּבְכָל-הָרֶמֶשׂ, הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ. כז וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ: זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם. כח וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, אֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְכִבְשֻׁהָ; וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם, וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבְכָל-חַיָּה, הָרֹמֶשֶׂת עַל-הָאָרֶץ. כט וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת-כָּל-עֵשֶׂב זֹרֵעַ זֶרַע אֲשֶׁר עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ, וְאֶת-כָּל-הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ פְרִי-עֵץ, זֹרֵעַ זָרַע: לָכֶם יִהְיֶה, לְאָכְלָה. ל וּלְכָל-חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ וּלְכָל-עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּלְכֹל רוֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה, אֶת-כָּל-יֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב, לְאָכְלָה; וַיְהִי-כֵן.

26 And God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ 27 And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them. 28 And God blessed them; and God said unto them: ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.’ 29 And God said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed--to you it shall be for food; 30 and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creeps upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, [I have given] every green herb for food.’ And it was so.  

Translation from the Jewish Publication Society Hebrew-English Tanakh and Lori Shaller.

Discussion Questions

  1. According to these Biblical verses, from where does our food come?
  2. What is our responsibility to the sources of our food?
  3. Our tradition teaches that at the beginning of the world, humans were vegetarians and it was not until after the flood and during Noah’s generation that humans were “allowed” to eat meat. What then, does “dominion over” the animals mean in this Biblical passage? Does that change or confirm your beliefs about what is okay to eat?
  4. Later in Genesis/Bereishit, Adam is told that one result of his and Eve’s eating from the tree of knowledge is that humans will now have to work for their food, tilling the soil. Does that seem to you to be a punishment or are there practical reasons that working for our food makes sense, eg. the ability to grow only what we choose to eat, for example.

Deuteronomy/Devarim 8:7-10

ז כִּי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, מְבִיאֲךָ אֶל-אֶרֶץ טוֹבָה: אֶרֶץ, נַחֲלֵי מָיִם--עֲיָנֹת וּתְהֹמֹת, יֹצְאִים בַּבִּקְעָה וּבָהָר. ח אֶרֶץ חִטָּה וּשְׂעֹרָה, וְגֶפֶן וּתְאֵנָה וְרִמּוֹן; אֶרֶץ-זֵית שֶׁמֶן, וּדְבָשׁ. ט אֶרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר לֹא בְמִסְכֵּנֻת תֹּאכַל-בָּהּ לֶחֶם--לֹא-תֶחְסַר כֹּל, בָּהּ; אֶרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲבָנֶיהָ בַרְזֶל, וּמֵהֲרָרֶיהָ תַּחְצֹב נְחֹשֶׁת. י וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ--וּבֵרַכְתָּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, עַל-הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לָךְ. 

7 For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths, springing forth in valleys and hills; 8 a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and honey; 9 a land wherein you shall eat bread without scarceness, you shall not lack any thing in it; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you may dig brass. 10 And you shall eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord your God for the good land which God has given you.  

Translation from the Jewish Publication Society Hebrew-English Tanakh and Lori Shaller.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the instruction given in these verses, and what reason is given for it?
  2. Some people think that food is just fuel for the body and that as long as it is healthy, all that is important is consuming enough of it to make the body run effectively and efficiently. Included in this kind of thinking might be the choice to eat only organic foods grown without the use of fertilizers or insect repellents that can be harmful to the body in large quantities. On the other end of the spectrum, some believe that eating should be as pleasurable an experience as possible. Still others think only about the environmental impact of their eating, choosing not to eat any foods grown outside of what they consider a “local” range, so that undue amounts of fuel aren’t used to get the food, while other people choose only to eat food grown by people who are paid a living wage and are treated fairly on the job. Which, if any, of these practices support your understanding of what these Biblical verses are calling for? What values, in addition to the ones listed here, influence your food choices?

Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals)

נוֹדֶה לְּךָ יי אֱלהֵינוּ. עַל שֶׁהִנְחַלְתָּ לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ אֶרֶץ חֶמְדָה טוֹבָה וּרְחָבָה. וְעַל שֶׁהוֹצֵאתָנוּ יי אֱלהֵינוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם. וּפְדִיתָנוּ מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים. וְעַל בְּרִיתְךָ שֶׁחָתַמְתָּ בִּבְשָׂרֵנוּ. וְעַל תּוֹרָתְךָ שֶׁלִּמַּדְתָּנוּ. וְעַל חֻקֶּיךָ שֶׁהוֹדַעְתָּנוּ. וְעַל חַיִּים חֵן וָחֶסֶד שֶׁחוֹנַנְתָּנוּ. וְעַל אֲכִילַת מָזוֹן שָׁאַתָּה זָן וּמְפַרְנֵס אוֹתָנוּ תָּמִיד. בְּכָל יוֹם וּבְכָל עֵת וּבְכָל שָׁעָה:

We thank You, Lord our God, for having given the heritage of a lovely, fine and spacious land to our fathers, and for having brought us out, Lord our God, from Egypt, and for rescuing us from slavery, and also for Your covenant which You sealed in our flesh, as well as for Your Torah which You taught us, and Your laws of which You told us, and for the life, grace and kindness You have granted us, and for the food which You supply and provide for us constantly, every day, all the time, and at every hour.

Nigel Savage and Anna Hanau, Food for Thought: Hazon's Sourcebook on Jews, Food & Contemporary Life (November 2010), 16.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think the blessings said after eating include references to the land of Israel, the redemption from Egyptian slavery, the circumcision covenant, and the Torah in addition to gratitude about the food?
  2. What values about food do you see expressed in this blessing?

Shulchan Arukh, 16th Century

כתוב בתורה: "לא תבשל גדי בחלב אמו" (שמות כג, יט; לד, כו; דברים יד, כא) ג' פעמים; אחד לאסור בשול, ואחד לאסור אכילה, ואחד לאסור הנאה. 

“You shall not boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk” [is written in Torah] three times:  Once for the prohibition of cooking (the two together), once for the prohibition of eating, and once for the prohibition of deriving pleasure (from eating the cooked mixture).   

Translation from Soncino Classics, Version 2.2.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the significance of multiplying one law into three?
  2. What do the three aspects of the law suggest about what Kashrut means?

Avot de Rabbi Natan 31:1

רבי אחאי בן יאשיה אומר: הלוקח תבואה מן השוק למה הוא דומה לתינוק שמתה אמו ומחזירין אותו על פתחי מיניקות אחרות ואינו שבע. הלוקח פת מן השוק למה הוא דומה כאלו חפור וקבור. האוכל משלו דומה לתינוק המתגדל על שדי אמו.

הוא היה אומר: בזמן שאדם אוכל משלו, דעתו מיושבת עליו. ואפילו אוכל אדם משל אביו ומשל אמו ומשל בניו, אין דעתו מיושבת עליו ואין צריך לומר משל אחרים.

Rabbi Ahai ben Yoshiya says: One who purchases grain in the market—to what may such a person be likened? To an infant whose mother died, and they pass him from door to door among wet nurses and the baby is not satisfied. One who buys bread in the marketplace—to what may such a person be likened?  It is as if he is dead and buried. But one who eats from his own is like an infant raised at his mother’s breasts. 

He used to say: During the time that a person eats from what he has grown himself—his mind is tranquil. Even one who eats from that which his father has grown or from that of his mother’s or son’s, his mind is not tranquil—and you do not [even] need to say [food grown] from that of others [non-relatives]. 

Translation from Soncino Classics, Version 2.2.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does this Talmudic quotation explain about the different values placed on people who grow their own food and those who buy their food? Do you agree? Why or why not?
  2. Would you grow your own food if you could? Why or why not?

Mission from Kayam Farm

Our mission is to embody and inspire social and ecological responsibility by transforming our community through hands-on Jewish agricultural education. Our farm is designed in order to feature halachic demonstrations of Jewish farming laws, and much of our curriculum draws upon Torah teachings through hands-on farming. But there’s far more to our Jewish agricultural heritage than we can plant on our farm—a massive, yet largely abandoned body of Jewish farming texts lies [sic] waiting for us, if only we can muster the skills and strength to encounter them.

Kayam Farm. “About: Background.” Accessed January 30, 2012.

Discussion Question

  1. What values about growing food are implied in this mission statement of Kayam Farm, an ecologically sustainable teaching farm attached to a Jewish retreat center outside of Baltimore, MD?

Excerpt from the novel "Herr Goldenberg" by Isaac Raboy

The Yiddish novelist Isaac Raboy was a Polish immigrant who emigrated to American in 1904. After spending a few years at a farm school and working on a farm in North Dakota, Raboy returned to New York in 1913 where he worked in a factory. The following is an excerpt from Raboy’s Yiddish novel called Herr Goldenberg, in which a Jewish man builds a farm in the Dakotas.

“Twenty years ago, Mr. Goldenberg, a young man full of energy, made his way out West. He left his young wife, Rachel, in the big city. He promised her that he would take his time and write to her when he found a good place and send for her.


The first day that Mr. Goldenberg brought his wife out West, he showed her the fields, hills, mountains and valleys of their new home. And they stood for a long time in the potato field. Rachel could not tear herself from the clean, neat rows of tall, healthily growing stems of dark green potato plants. And because she was thirsty from walking around, she went to the well and dipped a bucket into the water. She drank, rested, and drank again and she felt as though she had quenched a thirst that was deep in her heart. And then the two of them walked to the top of a hill and looked down on everything that they now called their own and at all that Mr. Goldenberg had accomplished in a short time with his own hands, and Rachel felt as though she had been taken from her little home and brought to live in a prince’s palace.”

Raboy, Isaac. Herr Goldenberg. Warsaw: Farlag Peretz Bibliotek, 1923, pp. 37-42 (trans. Jessica Kirzane)

Discussion Questions

  1. What do you think Raboy meant when he wrote that Rachel “felt as though she had quenched a thirst that was deep in her heart?”
  2. What does this passage tell us about Isaac Raboy’s own experiences as an immigrant, farmer, and then factory worker?
  3. What challenges do you think Jewish farmers living in rural areas faced?
  4. Does this passage identify any particularly Jewish values in Mr. Goldenberg’s or Rachel’s choice to move to a farm? What evidence can you find in the paragraph to support your opinion?.

Jews and Farming, Time Magazine

“There is a semireligious inspiration behind the Jewish back-to-the-farm movement, for the Jewish civilization of the Old Testament was primarily agricultural. The three great religious feasts of the Jews—Passover, Pentecost, Succoth—are fundamentally harvest festivals. Though in the centuries of the Diaspora (dispersion) circumstances have forced most Jews into occupations from which they could pull up stakes at any time, there nevertheless have always been farmer Jews somewhere. Today there are 800,000 Jewish farmers in the world.

Of U. S. Jewish agriculturalists, Dr. Davidson—who is too busy to farm himself—says that most are immigrant Jews, most come from trades such as the needle and fur, most seek farms and remain on them because farming is a peaceful way of life. Because they are city-bred, Jewish farmers are apt to have more plumbing, electricity, furnaces, radios, telephones than the average U. S. farmer.”

Time Magazine, March 14, 1938.

Discussion Questions

  1. What reason is given for Jewish immigrants to the U.S. in the first half of the twentieth century choosing farming to make a living?
  2. Many of the Jewish immigrants in the first half of the twentieth century who chose farming had to abandon it shortly after staring, because they were unable to make a living at it. Yet the Jewish Agricultural Society continued to provide technical support and to give loans to Jews who wanted to take up farming well into the twentieth century, even as farms were failing regularly after World War II. The only Jewish farms that survived were those that became highly modernized and industrial in scale, unattainable goals for most Jewish farmers at the time. What do you think would account for the Society’s continued support of Jewish farming ventures?

About the Jewish Farm School

The Jewish Farm School is an environmental education organization whose mission is to practice and promote sustainable agriculture and to support food systems rooted in justice and Jewish traditions. We train Jewish farmers, educators, and food justice activists, as well as inspire and support Jewish agricultural education experiences for the broader Jewish community.We are driven by traditions of using food and agriculture as tools for social justice and spiritual mindfulness. Through our programs, we address the injustices embedded in today’s mainstream food systems and work to create greater access to sustainably grown foods, produced from a consciousness of both ecological and social well-being.

Jewish Farm School. "Home: Mission." Accessed January 30, 2012.

Discussion Questions

  1. What do you think is meant by the goal to “support food systems rooted in justice”? Alternatively, what do you think is meant by “injustices embedded in today’s mainstream food systems”?
  2. What do you imagine the Jewish Farm School would call a successful outcome of their education programs?
  3. Should all Americans be educated to meet these learning goals?

About Scott and Tanya

I am Scott Hertzberg. With my wife Tanya, I have a vegetable farm in southern Maryland. We grow mostly for a CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] serving people close to us in Washington DC. As is the case for most Jews involved in farming today, we grew up in the suburbs and are new to farming. However, like a surprising number of American Jews we do not have to look far to find some agricultural roots. Tanya's father spent summers at his uncle's large and for a long time successful egg farm in Tom's River, New Jersey. My great grandfather briefly had a go at dairy farming in upstate New York and one grandmother had fond memories of visiting relatives on a farm in Muscatine, Iowa near her childhood home in Davenport.

Jewish Farmers of America Wiki. “Home: Wiki Moderators.” Accessed January 30, 2012.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think Scott and Tanya are telling readers of their Wiki about their historical roots in agriculture?
  2. Does your family have any historical connections to farming in the U.S.?
  3. How did Jewish people get disconnected from agricultural work historically?

Leaflet for a Jewish Farming Settlement Organization

The necessity to direct the attention of the Israelites of America to agriculture has long been felt. The exclusive pursuit of commerce and its cognate branches by our people, is often used as a reproach and it must be confessed with some good show of reason…A few trades have been entirely monopolized…the agriculturist however is entirely wanting. It is on this account that we are looked upon as transitory inhabitants, having neither the desire nor the capacity to settle as permanent citizens.

This view erroneous enough itself, is nevertheless justified by the exclusive pursuit of commerce, which permits the accumulation of wealth without the acquirement of permanent interest in the soil of the land.

…In order then to change this undesirable state of affairs, in order to create a taste for and encourage agriculture amongst our people, a calling so honorable and ensuring the greatest degree of independence and happiness and finally in order to employ the newly arrived emigrants…and to wean them from beggary and from becoming a burden to our charitable institutions, it is proposed to organize an association under the title ‘American Hebrew Agricultural and Horticultural Association.’

1855 leaflet calling for the establishment of an organization to fund the settlement of Jewish immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe on farms across the country, as reprinted in Jews in American Agriculture, The Jewish Agricultural Society, Inc., 1954, p. 18.

Discussion Questions

  1. The founders and trustees of the American Hebrew Agricultural and Horticultural Association were wealthy, assimilated American Jews from Central Europe.  What values do they identify for founding the Association?
  2. Do you think their work settling Jewish immigrants on farms met their stated goals?  Why or why not?

History of Earthbound Farms

When our founders Drew and Myra Goodman came to California’s Carmel Valley back in 1984, they were determined young transplants from Manhattan, drawn to the natural beauty and richness of the land. Even before they turned over their first shovels full of soil, they believed strongly in doing the right thing.

They settled on a 2½-acre raspberry farm and decided that doing the right thing meant committing to farming the spectacular land organically, producing food they’d want to eat themselves and would feel good about serving their families, friends and neighbors. That labor of love became Earthbound Farm.

It wasn’t long before Earthbound Farm was doing a lot of the right things. Undaunted by those who said it couldn’t be done, in 1986,we became the first company to successfully launch prewashed, packaged salad for retail sale. When we introduced our mixed baby greens or “spring mix” to restaurants and supermarket produce aisles, we started a salad revolution. Today, gourmet salad greens and packaged salads have become staples of grocery baskets everywhere.

Earthbound Farm Organic. The Earthbound Story. Retrieved January 30, 2012 from

Discussion Questions

  1. In the 1970s and 1980s, organic farming became interesting to young men and women, Jewish and non-Jewish, as an expression of social and political consciousness. They were partly interested in organic farming for health and environmental reasons and partly as a rebellion against the agribusinesses that had overwhelmed so many family farms in the years following World War II. What, if anything, do you think is Jewish about Myra and Drew Goodman’s Earthbound Farm?
  2. Earthbound Farm has been criticized for becoming an agribusiness rather than alternative to traditional commercial farming. How might the fact that Earthbound products are grown on a large-scale commercial farm and then packaged and shipped to supermarkets all over the country conflict with the Goodmans’ goals of producing food that is both environmentally and health conscious?
Teacher resources

Farm Bill Resources from American Jewish World Service

American Jewish World Service (AJWS) has several resources on the Farm Bill from a Jewish perspective.

A Home on the Range

A Home on the Range: The Jewish Chicken Ranchers of Petaluma, California, is a documentary about Jews who fled the pogroms in Eastern Europe to become chicken farmers in the U.S. Includes historical resources and information to rent or buy the movie.

abUSed: The Postville Raid

abUSed is a documentary about the 2008 immigration raid on the Agriprocessor, Inc. kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa.

Magen Tzedek Kashrut Standard

Website for Magen Tzedek, an organization that provides an ethical certification for kosher food.

Tav HaYosher-Organizing Just Workplaces

Website for Tav HaYosher, a grassroots initiative to create just workplaces in kosher restaurants. Includes a restaurant list, a description of standards, and resources for restaurants, workers, and community organizers.

Hungry Planet

For younger students, Hungry Planet by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio provides a visual representation of how globalization, migration, and rising affluence are affecting the diets of communities around the globe. You can also listen to an interview with the author and photographer on NPR's All Things Considered.

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This resource about Jewish farming colonies in Kansas might be of interest

A wonderful and interesting book that would really go well with this lesson is the Hungry Planet, What the World Eats Peter Menzel and Faith D'Alusio

It shows comparative pictures from around the world of what families eat in a week....

In reply to by dbrennan

Thanks, we'll add this to our teacher resource list!

A convention booklet for the First Annual Convention of The Federation of Jewish Farmers of America held in October 1909. The seal depicts a plow used by pushing, usually pulled by a horse. The Federation of Jewish Farmers was formed in 1909 as a union of thirteen existing associations of Jewish farmers. In its first year, the organization held an agricultural fair during the week-long fall harvest holiday of Sukkot. In later years, the annual conventions offered farmers an opportunity to exhibit their products, and they continued to take place during Sukkot. The federation also gave Jewish farmers more purchasing power, starting a bureau to give liberal credit to farmers who needed more help, and offering good prices on seeds and farming implements to those who needed them.

Courtesy of American Jewish Archives.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Jews and Agricultural Labor." (Viewed on September 26, 2023) <>.


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