BJ Students Learn About Farmworker Justice
During the fall, over 50 4th-6th grade BJ Hebrew School students involved in the Jewish Journey Project (JJP) engaged in learning about the lives of farmworkers in the United States. Our students explored the connections between the food they eat, how it is grown, and the people who harvest their food.
This three-week collaborative Social Justice unit, created by Assistant Director of Education for Curriculum and Learning Nina Loftspring and Social Action Coordinator Larissa Wohl, focused on the Economic Justice Hevra’s work on the Farmworker Justice Campaign, geared toward the passage of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, which would grant farmworkers in New York state the rights they are currently denied.
Based in texts from the Torah, Talmud and Midrash, the unit allowed the students to form a holistic view of Jewish perspectives on the treatment of farmworkers and taking care of the environment. Students were able to visit a mock farmers’ market, where they interviewed the “owners” (BJHS teachers) about how they treated their workers, what amenities they provided (including housing, transportation, water in the fields, etc.), and their financial resources. They also learned about the historic exclusion of farmworkers from federal labor laws that protect most hourly wage workers, a vestige of the Jim Crow era. Students were inquisitive and asked engaging questions, digging deeper into the reasons why farmworkers are not treated fairly in this country.
Students were introduced to the social and economic limitations that farmworkers face, including hiring practices, immigration status, wage regulation, access to housing, and humane working conditions. It is not a conversation we as a society often have about our food system, and our students approached the topic with maturity and intrigue. While we often have conversations about the food we put into our bodies, this joint program gave our students the opportunity to discuss issues reaching beyond how food is grown.
As a faith community, we embrace the great responsibility of caring for the needy and vulnerable, and we invite our members to work for systemic change. For example, BJ students cook for the BJ/SPSA homeless shelter and have engaged in classsroom conversations about hunger. The farmworkers unit allowed the students to expand their understanding into the realms of ethical consumption and food systems in a manner that is rooted in ancient Jewish texts and values, acknowledging the laborers often hidden from their view.
At BJ, sometimes we pray in the sanctuary. Sometimes we pray with our feet, marching in the streets with our brothers and sisters. Sometimes we pray with our hands, writing advocacy letters to politicians. After encountering various farmworker narratives and reflecting on what they had learned, students wrote insightful letters to Governor Cuomo, advocating for the passage of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act. As a result, we mailed more than 50 letters to state legislators. For more information on the Economic Justice Hevra, visit www.bj.org. Below are some of our students’ thoughts, as expressed to our elected officials:
“I think the farmers should get paid so they can provide a living to their families.” —Isabella
“They should be given equipment to protect them in the heat.” —Alexander
“Each day I come home and I think about how lucky I am to have a nice bedroom, a loving family, and lots of toys and clothes.” —Sabina
“In our very Declaration of Independence, it says ‘all men are created equal.’ I think these men [and women] deserve as many rights as you and I do.” —Jacob
“… I know that in order for meat to be kosher, it needs to be slaughtered painlessly. By making these workers have inequality, the crops that are sent to the stores aren’t kosher because the workers don’t harvest the crops painlessly. These workers only work at farms because they are suffering through poverty and have limited choices for work.” —Lucy
“We rely on our parents to bring home the money for food every day. However, the people who grow our food do not necessarily have enough food themselves.” —Abigail
“Farmworkers are workers too, and serve as a crucial part of our society…they put in the same hard work and effort as any corporate ‘yes man,’ so they should be treated the same way.” —Ethan