Jewish farmers in the Garden State
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Jewish farmers in the Garden State

Visiting Bildner Center scholar will talk about the history of immigrant agriculture

Somehow, miraculously, Wolf Ehrlich survived Auschwitz. In 1951, he immigrated to the United States with his new wife, Hannah, another survivor from Poland. When they got here, a Jewish philanthropic organization set them up as poultry farmers in Egg Harbor. They worked hard, and eventually they became chicken-and-egg business owners.

Jewish farmers in the Garden State already were well established by the time the Ehrlichs arrived; in fact, these survivors were late additions to the colony at Egg Harbor.

The phenomenon began in the 1880s, when thousands of Jewish agricultural colonists left pogrom-infested Russia to set up farming communities on four continents.

A farmer checks his melons.

Most of us know about the farming enterprises these immigrants started in what was then Palestine, laboriously paving the way for successful Jewish settlement in areas such as Petach Tikva, Rishon LeZion, and Zichron Yaacov.

Now we can learn more about those who chose to till the soil in the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and even Germany, among other places.

An online exhibit about modern Jewish farming will be launched on October 21 with a Zoom presentation by the exhibition’s creator, Jonathan Dekel-Chen, a professor of Soviet and East European Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is a visiting scholar this year at Rutgers University’s Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life.

A Jewish farmer finishes milking his cows. (Library of Congress)

New Jersey was the poultry capital of the eastern United States, Dr. Dekel-Chen said. Although hundreds of Jewish farms also flourished in the New York Catskills, parts of Connecticut, and as far west as California, there were big concentrations of the farms in the southern New Jersey counties — Atlantic, Cumberland, Salem, and Cape May — and even farther north in Morris County (see sidebar).

“By the time the Ehrlichs showed up, Jewish philanthropic organizations knew how to effectively resettle immigrants onto farming colonies,” Dr. Dekel-Chen said.

While some Jews arrived from Europe with farming experience, he added, the vast majority had to learn on the job, but they received assistance.

The flyer from an agricultural school in Doylestown Pennsylvania, the third and last such Jewish faming school in the country. The second school was in Peekskill.

“Wolf and Hannah got an existing home with an affordable mortgage. There were mutual aid societies in these colonies that allowed them to purchase whatever they needed and helped them market their produce. The Jewish Agricultural Society had a training network throughout North America.”

The Jewish farms’ products were not limited to chickens, he continued. “Over time, what they farmed changed and was different from place to place. Dairy, field crops, tomatoes, root vegetables, orchards, and vineyards were all tried. Even tobacco in some places. However, poultry is a thread that runs through all of them. It provided year-round income. It’s low risk and low capital, and you didn’t need much training to be successful at it.”

Dr. Dekel-Chen speaks from experience. He grew up in Connecticut but has lived on a Gaza border kibbutz for 40 years, since he was 18.

A group stands in a field.

“I was a farmer for many years on the kibbutz,” he said. “My first major career was in agricultural machinery and irrigation. I came to the academy late. I began my B.A. studies at 31.”

His doctoral dissertation was based on a large cache of information he discovered in Russian, Yiddish, English, French, German, and Spanish about Jewish farming colonies, most of it untranslated.

“I was fascinated to see what was happening there and how interconnected it was in terms of technology, the philanthropy that supported it, and how people moved to many countries to pursue farming,” he said.

Dr. Jonathan Dekel-Chen will be at Rutgers this year as a visiting scholar at the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life.

As a visiting scholar at the Bildner Center, he’d planned a public mini-course about the history of Jewish farming, focused on New Jersey in the late 1800s through the early 1960s. He looked forward to taking students on a field trip to see the buildings and cemeteries that remain in the Jewish farming clusters of South Jersey.

Covid changed those plans, of course. Dr. Dekel-Chen brainstormed with Dr. Nancy Sinkoff, the Bildner Center’s academic director, and came up with the idea of a permanent online exhibition.

“At the launch, we’ll announce a crowdsourcing project to help us gather digital material and digital artifacts that are pertinent to Jewish farming anywhere,” he said. “Some of that will be added to the online exhibit.”

Israel is not the focal point of the exhibition because its agriculture already is “legendary and iconic,” Dr. Dekel-Chen said.

“However, what became the agricultural miracle in Israel can only be understood in the context of the global phenomenon of Jewish farming, which starts in the 1880s. Just as a handful of young idealistic Zionists came to create new Jewish agricultural settlements in Ottoman Palestine, their Jewish neighbors, cousins, and classmates — for almost identical reasons — went to create utopian Jewish communes in the United States and elsewhere. In many ways it dwarfed Jewish farming life in Palestine, but it did not last as long.”

Dr. Dekel-Chen shot some videos for the exhibition in Woodbine, one of the first and most successful Jewish farming communes in New Jersey.

A Jewish woman feeds a big-eyed calf. (Courtesy of Jack Delano, Library of Congress)

“Baron de Hirsch Farm School, the first agricultural vocational high school in the country, was founded in Woodbine, and it was specifically for Jewish sons and daughters of the Jewish colony,” he said. Another followed in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and the third and last such school in the country was in Peekskill, N.Y.

The first headmaster of the Woodbine school was Hirsch Loeb Sabsovich, a Russian lawyer and one of the leaders of the Am Olam Jewish farming movement. His first attempt at farming in North America had failed, and he’d returned to Russia to study chemistry.

When he came back to the United States in the late 1880s in a wave of hundreds of thousands of other European Jews, Sabsovich worked for the government in an experimental station in Fort Collins, Colorado.

This cemetery in Woodbine was for the local rural Jewish community.

“The Baron Maurice de Hirsch Fund, the predecessor to the Jewish Agricultural Society, located Sabsovich there and asked him supervise the founding of Woodbine as a model colony with 12 Jewish immigrant families from Eastern Europe,” Dr. Dekel-Chen said.

“Sabsovich was known as a practical idealist. He was one of the few Jews in 1891 who knew anything about modern farming and could also speak fluent English by that time. He really embodies the kind of transnational nature of Jewish farming.”

In 1903, Woodbine became an independent borough of Dennis Township and Mr. Sabsovich was elected its first mayor. In 1900, Woodbine had a population of 900, of whom 760 were Jews. Twenty years later, 825 of the 1,400 residents were Jews. They remained a majority until the 1930s.

This potato sack is from a Jewish farm in Ellington, Conn.

“Until about 1948, between 100,000 to 150,000 Jews were actively engaged in farming in hundreds of communities. It declined quickly due to a variety of factors, including the corporatization of farming in the United States, which began choking off family farms.”

Another factor was the GI Bill, which enabled World War II veterans — including returned vets who had grown up in the colonies — to obtain a college education. Even those who chose to study agronomy rarely went back to the farms. One became the state agronomist of Connecticut, Dr. Dekel-Chen said.

“There were some residual Jewish tomato farmers in the 1970s, but most left in the late ’50s early ’60s. Some of the farms evolved into an early version of Airbnbs and summer cottages, especially in upstate New York and Connecticut. They rented out rooms in their farmhouses for Jewish vacationers from the city.”

In Alliance, a Jewish agricultural settlement in Salem County, a great-great-grandson of one of the founders recently established the Alliance Colony Reboot. “They still have the farmland and it’s still being farmed,” Dekel-Chen said. “That’s relatively rare.”

“But some other descendants still live quite close by. The Vineland area is home to many of them because their parents chose to leave in the 1950s and moved to the nearest town. On occasion they’ve had reunions.”

The online exhibition includes video clips, some filmed onsite many decades ago, featuring the farmers themselves, and others shot by Dr. Dekel-Chen in Woodbine and Alliance.

There also are historical photos and descriptions, interviews, and music inspired by Jewish rural life. Oral histories are planned as a future addition.

Dr. Sinkoff said the exhibit “reminds our local and national publics of the rich history of Jewish agricultural settlement in New Jersey, the Garden State, illustrating that Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe made their way in the United States not only as industrial workers in urban centers, but also as chicken and dairy farmers in rural settings.

“These immigrants planted deep roots in New Jersey and our exhibit honors their efforts; at the same time, this rich past connects to the current interest among young Jews to re-engage with farming as part of their commitment to environmentalism and sustainability in the 21st century.”


Who: Exhibition creator Jonathan Dekel-Chen, the Rabbi Edward Sandrow chair in Soviet & East European Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the Bildner Center’s visiting scholar through June 2022

What: Will present a virtual public talk to launch an online exhibition, “Jewish Agriculturalism in the Garden State,” at the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers University

When: On Thursday, October 21, at 1 p.m.

For information and to register: Advance registration is required; go to BildnerCenter.Rutgers.edu; call (848) 932-2033; or email bildnercenter@sas.rutgers.edu

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