Religious and Cultural Diversity on the Farm
By Shani Mink
The Jewish High Holidays are a very special time for my family. It’s a yearly reset – we pray, eat, don’t eat, gossip, ask for forgiveness for gossiping – but most importantly, we’re together.
In summer 2021/5781, in the Hebrew Calendar, when I laid out the dates I would need to take off for the High Holidays and submitted them to my manager, she responded, “I really need you to be more committed to the farm.” I was heartbroken, confused and frankly, angry. Could I not be both committed to the farm and committed to my Jewish practice? I remember asking a friend: Is this religious discrimination? Is this illegal?
A situational truth was that my farm manager hadn’t grown up near a Jewish community and didn’t know many Jews – let alone Jews with an Orthodox practice. While I set the boundary early in my tenure that I wouldn’t work on Shabbat, my needs around the High Holidays surprised her. I grew up in a town with so many Jews that even the public schools were closed for the High Holidays. And while I’d worked on other farms in rural areas, I had never before experienced this degree of pressure to forgo my Jewish practice for the sake of the farm.
I figured my experience couldn’t be unique. I asked our followers of the Jewish Farmer Network Instagram if they had experienced anything similar – they had. I looked back at the report from a 2021/5781 Jewish Farmer Listening Session sponsored by the USDA through FRSAN-NE (Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network - North East) and read testimony after testimony of similar experiences.
Again, I was heartbroken.
According to U.S. Law, farm managers with less than 15 crew members are not required to give time off for religious observances. However, the gap between U.S. law and ethical behavior can be vast. We are here inviting and challenging farm managers to go above the bare minimum to create just and supportive workplaces for Jewish farmers and other non-Christians working under Christian Hegemony.
Judaism is more than a religion; farming is more than a job. Sometimes, these pieces of our identity collide in unexpected ways. In reflecting on our experiences as Jewish individuals who work on farms, the Jewish Farmer Network team came up with some best practices to both advocate for ourselves and support our managers and co-workers in creating space for our Jewish practice.
Best Practices for Self-Advocacy:
Take yourself seriously! Your practice is yours and no one else’s — only you get to decide the boundaries around your own religious practice.
Communicate your needs and boundaries with your employer as early as possible.
Be clear about the days you need to take off - submit the dates in writing.
Offer solutions where everyone’s needs are taken care of.
Share some resources with your manager as they might need help to understand what exactly you’re asking for.
Best Practices for Managers:
Ask or do your own research if a religious or cultural practice is unfamiliar.
Don’t question a worker’s commitment to the farm because they ask for time off for religious or cultural observance - the two have nothing to do with each other.
Work with your team members to come to a mutually considerate agreement.
See religious variety on your staff as a strength.
Best Practices for Coworkers:
Don’t shame other people’s practices or for time taken off.
Have curiosity and care about your own religious/cultural practices and those of your co-workers.
Offer to swap shifts to make things work.
For many, the ability to connect to ancestral and communal rhythms supports holistic wellbeing. Our Christian co-workers need not worry about getting time off for Easter or Christmas because they are protected federal holidays. Jewish, Muslim, Indigenous, and other non-Christian holidays are no less sacred or important — they’re less protected and less recognized.
As we show up for ourselves in our right to practice, we simultaneously show up in solidarity for everyone’s right to have their cultural, religious, and spiritual practices respected on the farm. When we are rooted in and nourished by our own histories, rituals, and practices — and show up for others in their own process—we can ground in the abundant reality that our liberation is intimately tied to the liberation of others.
We hope this reflection is a Tikkun – a healing – for farm workers, the farming community, all our ancestors, and the land.
Shani Mink is a co-founder and the executive director of the Jewish Farmer Network. You can learn more about the network at jewishfarmernetwork.org
Excerpted from “Shovels and Shofars: A Jewish Farm Worker’s Guide to Self Advocacy” published in 2022 by Jewish Farmer Network. Written by Shani Mink & Liel Green, edited by Jacob Kose, Bella Schnee & SJ Seldin.