To offer some respite from the glaring sun, Magdalena invited our AJWS delegation of young North American rabbis to stand beneath the shade of a chaya tree in her lush garden in Muchucuxcah, Mexico. Her husband, standing at her side, beamed at the bounty of their field and the fruits of his wife’s vision and labor.
Only a few years before, the terrain behind Magdalena’s house was rock-studded and barren. Inspired by community education efforts offered by the local cooperative and AJWS partner El Hombre Sobre La Tierra (“Humankind on Earth”) to use the land as a resource for better nutrition and a source of livelihood, Magdalena asked her husband’s permission—as land in Muchucuxcah is traditionally owned by men—to work the family’s plot. Her husband agreed, and now he learns from and works with Magdalena, tending to and harvesting the rainbow of fruits and vegetables that grow in their backyard garden.
Now recognized as a community leader, she teaches other women how to make their home gardens flourish, and she is thankful that her children, who work alongside her, will always have a skill upon which they can base their own livelihoods.
By many measures—financial, nutritional and entrepreneurial—Magdalena is a success, and an anomaly. Of the 1.5 billion people in the world living on one dollar a day or less, the majority are women.1 Often denied access to decision making at home and in their communities, as well as to critical resources such as credit, land and inheritance, women labor without reward or recognition, and thus become subject to the increasing feminization of poverty.
However, as Magdalena’s story indicates, empowering women by giving them access to land and the right to control their own decisions frees them—and their children— from the cycle of poverty and hunger. Now responsible for defining and controlling her own food sources, Magdalena plants crops native to the regional ecosystem using methods informed by traditional agricultural norms and practices. Significantly, these practices benefit not only her own family, but also increase her community’s food security and food sovereignty, and promote environmental sustainability in the region.
Magdalena’s story calls to mind Eshet Chayil,2 a passage from the book of Proverbs traditionally recited by husbands to their wives on Shabbat evening. Beginning with “A woman of valor, who can find?”—the passage lauds a wife for selflessly supporting her husband and household through her domestic work:
She is like a merchant fleet,
Bringing her food from afar.
She rises while it is still night,
And supplies provisions for her household.
She sets her mind on an estate and acquires it;
She plants a vineyard by her own labors.
She girds herself with strength,
And performs her tasks with vigor.
She makes cloth and sells it,
And offers a girdle to the merchant.
She is clothed with strength and splendor;
She looks to the future cheerfully.
Some in the Jewish community resist Eshet Chayil, arguing that it praises women only for their domestic labor and fails to encourage them to play an active public leadership role. In light of Magdalena’s story, however, the text—and its subtext on the value of labor—can be read differently. Magdalena’s agricultural work does not limit the respect that she receives from her family and community; rather, it empowers her.
Using her hands, back and brow, Magdalena has broken free of the cycle of poverty, transforming a rocky yard into a flourishing garden, a traditional marriage into an authentic partnership, and a family once subject to malnutrition into one that is nourished and self-sufficient. Now a respected leader and teacher, Magdalena—like the woman described in Eshet Chayil—“looks to the future cheerfully,” knowing that she has had a hand in shaping a better future for herself and her community.
Magdalena’s garden gives her the power to harvest success, influence and joy—and most significantly, the freedom to pursue untold future possibilities. As Eshet Chayil, “A Woman of Valor”—which might in this context be translated as “a woman empowered”—says: “Extol her for the fruit of her hand / And let her works praise her in the gates.”
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American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is an international development organization motivated by Judaism’s imperative to pursue justice. AJWS is dedicated to alleviating poverty, hunger and disease among the people of the developing world regardless of race, religion or nationality. Through grants to grassroots organizations, volunteer service, advocacy and education, AJWS fosters civil society, sustainable development and human rights for all people, while promoting the values and responsibilities of global citizenship within the Jewish community.
AJWS has received an “A” rating from the American Institute of Philanthropy since 2004 and a four-star rating from Charity Navigator for nine years. AJWS also meets all 20 of Better Business Bureau’s standards for charity accountability.
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