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UFW, Jewish Community Bound by Social Justice Causes

Posted: Apr 14, 2012

FRESNO, Calif. -- If farmworker leader César E. Chávez were still alive, he might have joined Jewish families across the county in observing the start of Passover last weekend.

Chávez, a devout Catholic, used to hold the ceremonial Passover dinner, known in Hebrew as a seder, in the Pan y Vino hall at the United Farm Workers' headquarters, La Paz, in the Tehachapi Mountains community of Keene.

He would often invite rabbis from Los Angeles to La Paz to say the traditional prayers, and to lead about 250 union staff and their families in retelling the Passover story -- the story of the Exodus, in which the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt.

"He took a real interest and comfort from Passover," said Marc Grossman, Chávez's longtime speech writer and personal aide. The story of the Exodus, "meant a lot to him."

Today, seders are no longer held at La Paz. But the bonds between the United Farm Workers and the Jewish community remain strong.

The Jewish community -- long champions of social justice causes -- has financially supported Chávez from the early days of the movimiento. Judaism was the first religious institution to back the union.

And Jews have played pivotal roles in the UFW's 50-year history, including:

Irv Hershenbaum, who is the United Farm Workers' first vice president, and heads the union's Contract Campaigns Department; Grossman, Chávez's longtime speechwriter, press secretary, and personal aide; Nan Freeman, an 18-year-old college student who became the first person to die in service to the UFW.

The Jewish community's support for farmworkers -- most of whom are Latino and Catholic -- might at first be confusing. But Jews' support for social justice causes , ranging from abolition, to the civil rights movement, to the Occupy movement, is rooted in ancient teachings, experts said.

A commandment in the Jewish bible -- to 'love the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt' -- has become Jews' social justice ethos, said Lee Winkelman, a board member with JOIN for Justice, which trains and supports Jewish organizers.

"In the U.S., the strangers in our land are immigrants," Winkelman said. "Our tradition says to treat them as if they are not strangers, but as if they are our brothers."

That includes ensuring people have decent working conditions, get paid decently for their work, and are not subjected to pesticides, he said.

Jews' support for farmworkers also stems from a shared experience of being immigrants, said Susan Lubeck, Bay Area director of Bend the ARC, a Jewish social justice organization.

"The experience of Jews as being historically a small minority, has given us an acute awareness of the dynamics of power, and the challenge that a minority faces at the hand of a majority," she said.

Hershenbaum had little connection to farmworkers when he organized his first lettuce boycott in 1972, as a 20-year-old student at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. Still, he identified with the union's struggle for economic justice.

He had seen his own parents -- European refugees who became tailors in New York's garment industry -- benefit from union membership, and believed farmworkers deserved equal benefits.

"I knew firsthand from my own experience how important labor unions were," said Hershenbaum, whose first language was Yiddish, the language of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, and now speaks some Spanish.

"I felt farmworkers deserved the same rights my parents had."

More than five years before Hershenbaum joined the union, Jews began supporting the farmworker movement.

As he strolled the grounds of La Paz last week, Grossman, Chávez's former speech writer and aide, told a funny story about the Jewish community's early financial backing of Chávez's National Farmworker Association, which became the UFW.

In 1965, the union was boycotting Schenley Industries, a major wine grape grower. As the boycott gained attention and momentum, the union started receiving contributions, Grossman said.

Chávez's wife, Helen, and her sister, Petra, were opening checks at the union's office in Delano when Petra noticed a trend, he said.

"Hey sister, look at this," Petra said to Helen Chávez, according to Grossman. "There's all these people with the same first name -- 'Rabby.'"

"Helen had to explain that is like a Jewish priest -- a rabbi (pronounced ra-bye,)" said Grossman.

Beyond financial support, the Jewish community was also the first religious organization to support the UFW, Grossman said.

Jewish institutional support for the union began in the early 1970s when boards of rabbis in East Coast cities declared boycotted products not kosher -- or, unfit to be eaten based according to Jewish law.

The rabbis determined that, "if a product comes to you through the exploitation of workers, it is not kosher," Grossman explained.

According to Jewish law, other foods that are not kosher include pigs, lobsters, oysters, shrimp, and any meals that mix milk and meat products.

Grossman began supporting the farmworker union in the late 1960s while he was studying history at UC, Irvine. He would picket supermarkets, and drive to Delano on Fridays to deliver food and clothing to strikers.

"Once I met (César) and got to know him and got to understand what he was trying to do, I figured it would be a lot more interesting to be a part of history than just read about it," said Grossman, who is medium height and wears round glasses.

Grossman joined the UFW staff in 1970, and became Chávez's press secretary and aide in 1975. He worked with Chávez on speeches and correspondence until Chávez died in 1993.

Other Jews have also become part of the union's history.

After enduring a five-year grape boycott that ran from 1965 to 1970, Lionel Steinberg -- a Jewish grower from the Coachella Valley, who was the president of David Freedman & Co. -- became the first grower to sign a table grape contract with the UFW.

Steinberg's April 1970 agreement with the union, "opened the flood gates," Grossman said. By July, the Delano growers had signed contracts, too.

When the original contracts expired in 1973, most growers signed deals with the Teamsters, and the grape workers walked out on strike.Except for Steinberg, who became the only grape grower to keep his UFW contract that year, Grossman said.

"When it counted, he stood his ground and did the right thing," Grossman said.

With those actions, Steinberg earned a place in the UFW's history -- and its leader's office. Displayed on a bookshelf in Chávez's office, which is preserved as the day he left it, is the side of a wood grape box from Freedman & Co., signed by both Steinberg and Chávez.

And Freeman, the 18-year-old college student, became the first of five UFW martyrs when she died in service to the union on Jan. 25, 1972.

Freeman, of Wakefield, Mass., was picketing with striking sugarcane workers in Florida at 3:15 a.m. when a double trailer truck carrying 70,000 pounds of sugar cane accidentally struck her, according to the UFW website.

"César was devastated," Grossman recalled.

Chávez cited Jewish tradition in a statement mourning her death.

Nan Freeman, "is a young woman who fulfilled the commandments by loving her neighbors even to the point of sacrificing her own life," Chávez said.

"To us, Nan Freeman is Kadosha in the Hebrew tradition, a holy person to be honored and remembered for as long as farm workers struggle for justice."

Following Jewish tradition, trees were planted in Freeman's honor on the UFW's 40 Acres compound in Delano. Forty years after her death, the trees are full grown, Grossman said.

Today, signs of the Jewish community's support of the UFW are still visible at the union's headquarters.

A book autographed by former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek sits on a shelf in Chávez's office.

A Jewish Star of David, as well as a Christian cross and an Islamic crescent, rise out of a rock formation in the Peace Grove, on the grounds of La Paz. The metal religious symbols represent the faiths of the five martyrs, who died in service to the union.

And if you walk through the Peace Grove with Grossman, he might recite the final lines of a speech Chávez delivered in 1989 at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash.

Chávez concluded the speech with a quote from the Book of Micah, from the Old Testament.

"Our cause goes on in hundreds of distant places.

"It multiplies among thousands and then millions of caring people who heed through a multitude of simple deeds the commandment set out in the book of the Prophet Micah, in the Old Testament: 'What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.'"

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