Havu Livenim (Carry the Bricks): A New Paradigm for Manual Labor and Jewish Experience

Posted by: on Mar 20, 2012 | Leave a comment

Jordan Namerow and Ruth Messinger, American Jewish World Service


What is the value of manual labor in the Jewish service-learning movement? How might we redefine its worth? For privileged American Jews who have never picked up a shovel or muddied their boots, shingling roofs or weeding cucumbers can be critical catalysts for pursuing long-term social change. These activities also invoke a core piece of Jewish experience – the experience of the Chalutzim (early Zionist pioneers) of the 19th and 20th centuries. Drawing on writings of early 20th-century Chalutzim and testimonies from participants in Jewish service-learning programs, this article offers a new paradigm for understanding manual labor as an expression of Jewish peoplehood and Israeli history, an opportunity to explore class and privilege, and an instrument for shifting the American Jewish consciousness to build a more just world.

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[Jews] lack the habit of labor… We have developed a habit of looking down at manual labor, so that even those who are engaged in it work out of mere compulsion and always with the hope of escaping to a ‘better life.’ Labor is a great human ideal. The ideal of labor must become a pivot for all our aspirations… It is the ideal of the future, and a great ideal can be as healing as the sun. Though the purpose of history is not, to be sure, to act as the teacher, still the wise can learn from it. We can learn from our condition in the past and the present, for we must now set the example for the future. We must all work with our hands (Gordon, 1911)”

The Zionist philosopher, A.D. Gordon, wrote these words in his essay, “People and Labor,” published in 1911. An elderly intellectual with a small build and limited physical strength, Gordon had no prior experience with manual labor short of carrying books. Yet late in life, he picked up a hoe, worked in the fields, and created what many deemed “a religion of labor.” His aim? To build a national homeland and a national culture – one defined not only by values, ideas, and ideologies but also by the rigor of physical work. “Farming, building, and road-making –any work, any craft, any productive activity – is part of culture and is indeed the foundation and the stuff of culture,” Gordon wrote.

Manual labor was the pulse of life for Chalutzim, the Zionist pioneers who sought to cultivate land in Palestine and build their lives anew. They took it upon themselves to plow, plant, harvest, and haul. The titles of Zionist folk songs are illuminating: “Havu Livenim” (Carry the Bricks), “Saleinu Al K’tefeinu” (Our Baskets on Our Shoulders), and “Ra’inu Amalenu” (We Beheld Our Toil).

One hundred years later, Gordon’s words – notwithstanding the radically different political context in which they were written – offer a valuable meditation for today’s American Jewish community. American Jews do lack the habit of labor, and most have drifted far from the soil. Forty-six percent of the estimated 6.4 million Jews in the United States report household incomes of over $100,000 compared to 19 percent of Americans as a whole (Pew Forum, 2006). Thirty-five percent hold postgraduate degrees. The vast majority of American Jews live in large urban centers like New York City, Miami, and Los Angeles (Pew Forum).

Although many of today’s doctors, lawyers, bankers, and entrepreneurs are the descendants of Jewish immigrants who sewed shirts, bound books, or milked cows to make ends meet, these “shtetl” livelihoods are only a chapter of history in the American Jewish narrative – a narrative defined by progress and upward mobility. And very few of today’s American Jewish Baby Boomers, no matter their level of economic security, envision their children pursuing careers in plumbing, farming, or road construction.

Yet what if physical labor were not just gritty slog for American Jews to delegate to others or witness from afar? What if working with our hands offered new possibilities for understanding social privilege, sharpening our moral certitude, and, as A.D. Gordon wrote, building the stuff of culture?

Rabbi Anne Ebersman recently joined 15 rabbis to build an IT center alongside members of a community in Ghana. Mindful of her limited construction skills and skeptical of the value she could add, Ebersman (2011) arrived at the following conclusion: “In the end, could [Ghanaians] have completed the project in the same amount of time without us? Of course. But without mixing concrete, would we have mixed with each other? We needed to work in order to build the relationships that changed us. We did build. But more importantly, something was built within us. Our labor was not necessary. Our labor was essential.”

In the past decade, Jewish service-learning (JSL) has become a significant aperture point for communal engagement. The 2008 study, Jewish Service Learning: What Is and What Could Be, describes JSL as “combin[ing] direct service that responds to real community needs with structured learning and time for reflection, all of which are placed in a rich context of Jewish education and values” (BTW Consultants, 2008).

The emergence of the JSL movement occurred within the broader context of national service and service-learning. National service programs trace their roots to early 20th-century civic life. These programs grew in number beginning in the 1960s and proliferated in the 1990s with the launch of AmeriCorps. Today, more than 75,000 young adults participate in AmeriCorps programs, and an estimated 200,000 Americans join the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps each year. Service-learning is also part of the fabric of many K–12 schools across the United States, engaging upward of 13 million youth annually (BTW Consultants, 2008).

Within the organized Jewish community, roughly 70 programs offer Jews of all ages opportunities to participate in immersive term-of-service programs. Whether short-term (one to three weeks), medium-term (one to three months), or long-term (five months to one year), these programs devote about 60 percent of their time to manual labor (BTW Consultants, 2008). Participants re-shingle roofs destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, harvest organic vegetables in rural New York, or build a market stall in Senegal. At the same time, more and more service-learning programs are dedicating resources to community organizing and advocacy, which are critical skills to ensure long-term sustainable change.

In her book, Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Community, Rabbi Jill Jacobs (2011) rightly discusses the limitations of direct service, recognizing that it often reinforces the stereotype that low-income people or people of color are the recipients of service and that better-off, predominantly white communities are service providers. However, if manual labor is grounded in ethical responsibility and coupled with a nuanced understanding of the context in which work takes place, the long-term return on investment blunts its short-term inadequacies.

Take, for example, Volunteer Summer – a program of the American Jewish World Service that combines direct service, study, and personal growth for Jewish young adults between the ages of 16 and 24. The program begins with a seven-week summer experience in a rural area of Africa, Asia, or the Americas. In collaboration with local grassroots nongovernmental organizations, participants work side-by-side with community members on projects such as laying irrigation systems, building schools and community centers, and planting crops. Along with the manual labor, a key component of Volunteer Summer is intensive study of social justice, human rights, and international development through a Jewish lens, culminating with a social justice “action plan” upon returning from the field. The outcome is an embodied shift in perspective resulting in deeper understandings of privilege, power, and personal responsibility.

“We are grappling with our own roles in the global systems that sustain poverty,” wrote one volunteer in Uganda. “Here, we minimize our consumption of water, electricity, and even toilet paper. No food goes wasted as we are all members of the ‘clean plate club.’ We have hugely increased our consciousness because it is clear that everything we do affects our new home” (this and the following quotes are taken from the 2011 Volunteer Summer weekly updates).

Another volunteer in Peru described the humility of doing a job he had always taken for granted: “Everyone is aching from the hard work of mixing cement. After years of complaining about oversized cement trucks slowing down traffic on the freeway, we have new appreciation for them. Cement mixing is hard work. Mixing gravel, dry cement and water by hand with a shovel, we create a paste, which is then poured into the ditches we spent the last two weeks digging. The whole process, which was repeated multiple times, takes two hours.”

A third volunteer shared, “The monotony of bending over in the hot sun and shuffling through dirt all day gave us a small taste of what some have to start doing at just 12-years-old to help support their family. We have a new appreciation for the produce we consume back home and how our food gets to the table. It saddens us to know that the people of Lurinchincha do not eat many of the crops they grow, like artichokes. They are all exclusively for export.”

For A.D. Gordon, manual labor was a vital ingredient for nation-building. For organizations like the American Jewish World Service and myriad others in the JSL movement, it is a catalyst for cultivating social responsibility that is not only theoretical and intellectualized but can also be lived and experienced tangibly – with textures, aches, and pains; frustrations and rewards. Knowing what it feels like to lift bricks or fertilize fields can serve as an impetus to fight for workers’ rights, advocate for equitable labor laws, or ensure that local farmers are fairly compensated for their tomato crops.

The link between Gordon’s philosophy and the JSL movement is that neither views manual labor as an exercise in empathy nor a stage to pass through to achieve greater social status. Instead, they see manual labor as a fundamental part of the human condition from which we learn to act ethically and live humbly.

As the gap between the privileged and the impoverished widens, there is ripe opportunity to invigorate manual labor with Gordon’s vision that it be “a pivot for all our aspirations” –aspirations to live a core piece of Jewish history while building a more just and equitable world.


Ebersman, Anne.  (2011). A journey into paradox: Reflections on Ghana.

Gordon, A.D.  (1911). “People and Labor.”

Jacobs, Jill. (2011). Where justice dwells: A hands-on guide to doing social justice in your Jewish community. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing.

Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. (2006). US religious landscape survey of American adults. Washington, DC: Author.

Jordan Namerow is the Senior Communications Associate of American Jewish World Service (AJWS). She was the 2005-2006 Roslyn Wolf Fellow of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in Warsaw, Poland and is an alumna of AJWS’s Volunteer Corps in Uganda. A graduate of Wellesley College, she holds a Master’s in Strategic Communications from Columbia University.