This is the story of the Toms River Jewish farmers who made Ocean County, New Jersey an egg producing capital. It was early spring, 1910. Sam Kaufman, owner of the biggest bar in Brooklyn, was worried about his sick daughters. He knew he had to get them out of the stale New York City air. Perhaps he could buy a farm. But the Catskills, where he first looked, lacked schools and he had five daughters to educate. Then he learned of Toms River, near the sea in central New Jersey. It was only 75 miles south of where he lived in Brooklyn. NY. Toms River had reasonably priced farmland, a small town atmosphere, only 800 inhabitants. Most importantly, it had a good high school.
Sam Kaufman became the first Jewish farmer in Toms River. He grew corn, wheat, potatoes and peanuts and raised cows. But his chickens were his greatest contributions to Jewish farming in Toms River. He was the first farmer in the area to raise poultry. His initiative began the egg sales that became a mainstay of Toms River’s Jewish farmers. In 1922 the nutritional benefits of vitamin D were discovered and farmers learned that adding Vitamin D to chicken feed could greatly increase egg production. Egg sales really took off. Some Toms River farmers were to own more than 7000 chickens.
By 1925 there were 75 Jewish farms in Toms River. [note]Joseph, Samuel. 1978 (reprint of original 1935 publication). History of the Baron de Hirsch Fund: the Americanization of the Jewish immigrant. Fairfield: Kelley, p. 175. [/note] From the oral history of class of ’41 member Ephraim Robinson, collected by Rutgers University and the oral histories collected by Toms River residents Jeanne Littman and Mildred Robinson in honor of the bicentennial of the United States in 1976, we can form a picture of the lives of the Kaufmans and the others who settled in Toms Rivers during the first half of the 20th Century. And you can see Mildred Robinson talking about growing up on the chicken farm in Toms River, NJ right here.
The First Farmers
The early Toms River farmers didn’t come directly from Eastern Europe. Rather, they had all spent some time, often many years, in New York or the surrounding area. Several had small stores and other businesses that they sold to pay for their farms or to cover part of the costs. The majority of these farmers also received loans and technical assistance from the Jewish Agricultural Society (JAS), an offshoot of the Baron Hirsch Fund. By 1935 the JAS had lent $160,000 ($2.3 million in today’s dollars) to Jewish farmers in Toms River and in the same year the JAS described Toms River as a “leading egg producing and poultry center.” [note] Joseph, 1978, p. 175 [/note]
Some Jews came to Toms River with actual farming experience. Among them was one key settler, Aaron Pincus, who directed the Folk Schule. He also served for many years as President of the community. He was a graduate of the Baron Hirsch Agricultural College in Woodbine, NJ. The College offered a two-year course. After graduating, Aaron worked on 17 farms in nine states before buying a farm in Toms River.
For the first pre WWI settlers, life in Toms River seemed quite primitive. Even those arriving in the 1920s and 30s found that modern conveniences were rare. The settlers came principally from New York City. There, even before WWI, central gas or electric lighting was found in even the poorest homes and steam heat and indoor bathrooms were quite common. In Toms River life depended on kerosene lamps, hand pumps, outhouses and coal or wood stoves. See photos of old Toms River here.
Jews leaving the city for health reasons or just some fresh air found New Jersey to be an ideal spot. Land was fairly inexpensive so profits from a small businesses or mortgages from the Jewish Agricultural Society could cover the costs. In 1912 and well into the 1920s, an acre cost approximately $600 in today’s dollars. For comparison, an acre of farm land in Indiana presently costs about $9,000 and even non irrigated farm land in Kansas sells for $3500 an acre. New Jersey was also close to New York City so family and friends could visit. And both New York and nearby Philadelphia provided large markets for produce and eggs.
After World War I
After World War I dozens of Jewish families came to settle on Toms River farms. Soon minions (Jewish pray sessions), and other activities and celebrations could no longer fit in homes. The Community of Jewish Farmers was formed. Then, a community hall was built in 1924 at a cost of $10,000 ($140,000 in today’s dollars). A Jewish Agricultural Society loan covered twenty-percent of the cost. [note] Joseph, 1978, p. 175 [/note] It was a simple place with a wood-burning furnace in the dirt floor basement. On Friday afternoons, volunteers would chip wood to ensure heat for Sabbath services. And local community members provided over night accomodations for those from farther afield who didn’t want to ride home after a service for religious reasons or safety concerns. (The roads were only lit by the moon and the stars.)
As Alton Estomin whose family settled in Toms River in 1918 tells us the Community Hall “was used by all factions for all purposes: religious, political, educational, social. Education was always uppermost in the minds of the people. There was a Jewish shule [that used the Community Hall] with teachers coming from NYC to teach Yiddish speaking, reading, writing, literature, and history. There was a basketball team, softball team, etc…” And many community events included non-Jewish farmers as well.[note] Joseph, 1978, p. 175 [/note]
For bar mitzvah preparation, Toms River Jewish youth traveled the 12 miles to Lakewood where there was an ordained rabbi. It was a six-hour trip, there and back, for the many farmers who had only a horse and buggy.
But to maintain their children’s connection to Jewish culture, Toms River parents wanted something closer. So they established the “shule” or schule that Alton Estomin mentioned.
The schule, named for the great Yiddish writer, Sholem Aleichem, met on Saturdays and Sundays. It was part of the Yiddish Folk Shule movement that provided a secular Jewish education in Yiddish, Jewish history and Hebrew. Founded in 1909, Yiddish Folk Schules sought to build respect for Jewish cultural heritage and to “close the gap between Yiddish speaking parents and their English speaking children.” Over 1,000 of these schools flourished in 160 communities in the U.S. and Canada between 1910 and 1960. Read about one folkshul still active in Philadelphia.
Toms River also hosted another secular Jewish school organized by the Workmen’s Circle. The Workmen’s Circle, founded in 1900 as a mutual aid society for Eastern European Jewish immigrants, also strove for social solidarity and the preservation of Yiddish culture. The Circle considered Yiddish the national language of the Jewish people. Among other labor issues, The Circle worked for the abolishment of child labor, the establishment of social security and the institution of a shorter workweek. Many in the group were against assimilation. They sought Yiddish cultural autonomy. To support this goal they established 125 schools across the United States. These schools taught Yiddish, socialist ideas, Jewish history and ethical and aesthetic culture.
Suppporting Soviet Jews
This desire to maintain Yiddish as the Jewish language was mirrored way across the world in the Soviet Jewish Autonomous Oblast (Territory) in Siberia. There Yiddish was taught in the schools. As part of a plan to gain support from all peoples of the world, Lenin set up this Oblast as an example of tolerance towards non Russian minorities. Stalin then encouraged Russian Jews to settle there on cooperative farms. At its peak in 1937, 20,000 Jews lived in the Oblast.
Many Jews in the United States, including those in Toms River, supported these efforts. In 1924 the Organization for Jewish Colonization in Russia was formed in New York. At first it supported Jewish agricultural settlements in Ukraine and Crimea and later it supported settlements in the Autonomous Oblast. “One of its initial patrons was Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck, and Company who contributed more than” $28 million in today’s dollars. And the American Yiddish press supported grass roots funding. Toms River responded. During the early 1930s, a Toms River delegate journeyed all the way to the Freileben Collective in the Autonomous Oblast with greetings from the Toms River Jewish Community. Community President Aaron Pincus and the Jewish Farm Workers Collective Chairman, Moshe Rocker, had made the contacts through a fraternal correspondence with their Siberian “brother colonists”. [note] Brandes, Joseph. 1971. Immigrants to freedom; Jewish communities in Rural New Jersey since 1882. Philadelphia, PA: U.of Pennsylvania Press., pp.314-15. [/note]
The Toms River Jewish community was also a strong supporter of Zionism. Many Jews celebrate two Passover Seders because before modern times it was thought impossible to know which night was the correct night in Jerusalem. In Toms River they instituted a third Seder. The Third Seder raised funds for the Jewish National Fund, (JNF) founded in 1901 to purchase and reclaim land in Palestine. Most famous was their plant-a-tree program. By 1935 the JNF had planted 1.7 million trees in Palestine and went on to plant 250 million more.
And as their personal contribution, Tom Rivers Jewish farmers sent chickens to the Jewish farmers in the Holy Land. Some of the farmers even financed gunrunners who, against British prohibitions, supplied Jewish nationalists in Palestine with arms. And after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the community supported a whole array of Zionist organizations. Some of the Toms River farmers even emigrated to Israel to work the land in this new Jewish nation.
Expanding Economic Activities
Jews in Toms River didn’t only farm. Some founded feed companies and started dry goods and variety stores. Another family opened the local theater and Krause’s Delicatessen and Luncheonette was a Toms River favorite. Many families ran boarding houses on their farms for those temporarily escaping the cities’ hubbub or heat or both. Some of these farmers even used the contacts made to develop New York City delivery routes for their eggs.
The Jews of Toms River were also organizers. They formed cooperatives for feed purchases and egg sales. They lobbied Washington to expand government egg purchases. And, they established one of the first credit unions in New Jersey. But sadly the coop founded to convert manure into fertilizer went bust.
But, the community prospered. By the mid 1930s, the one hundred Jewish farmers in Toms River owned the bulk of the poultry in Ocean County [note] Joseph, 1978, pp. 122 & 175. [/note]. By 1937, when the first refugees from Nazi Europe began to arrive, ten percent of the students in Toms River High School were Jewish.
Just as they had done for earlier immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Jewish Agricultural Society aided the Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in establishing farms in America. Between 1937 and 1940 approximately 45 German-Jewish families settled in Toms River. One of these was the Heinz Guenzburger family from Mannheim. They established a successful farm. But after WWII it was harder and harder to make a go of it. So Heinz engaged the woodworking skills he had learned from a Jewish vocational school back in Germany that was preparing young people for emigration. In 1946 he founded the Castle Woodcraft Company that still today produces high-end cabinetry.
World War II Service on the Home Front
During WWII many Jewish farm boys from Toms River served in the fight. On the home front there were very few radar installations. So many of the Toms River youth who stayed behind took advantage of Toms River’s seaside location. They joined the Federal Government’s Aircraft Warning Services Volunteer Corps, part of the Citizen Defense Corps. Perched on makeshift towers in the middle of farmland, they, along with 1.5 million volunteers nationwide, served as the first spotters of any enemy aircraft.
Post World War II
The Jews in Toms River were excellent farmers. In 1954, when the U.S. Department of State wanted to show off model poultry farms to visiting Japanese dignitaries, they brought them to Toms River. [note] Asbury Park Press, January 9, 1954, p. 4. [/note]
But, even so, during the 1950s many of the Jewish farmers found it harder and harder to make ends meet. Federal government price supports for eggs were dropping. Due to a great increase in supply, so were retail egg prices. [note] see Competitive Position of Chicken and Egg Production in the United States, Technical Bulletin No. 1018 • August 1950 UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, by Raymond P. Christensen and Ronald L. Mighell, Agricultural Economists, Bureau of Agricultural Economics [/note] From 1925 to 1950 egg production in the United States had increased 150% but the population had only increased 24%. During the 1930s and 40s government supports had subsidized the price per egg paid to farmers so the supply side growth was mitigated. But once these supports could longer be depended upon, the drop in retail prices hit the farmer hard. And the retail prices took a nosedive. Correcting for inflation, the cost of a dozen eggs in 1955 was only 43% of the price in 1945 and between 1955 and 1960 egg prices dropped another 10%.
Some farms were abandoned. Some of the farmers sold their farms to developers. Others already had side businesses. And many of their children followed various professions.
In 1964 a conservative synagogue, The Toms River Jewish Community Center took over the Jewish Farmers’ Community Hall building. In 1981 the hall passed to Temple Beth Shalom, a reform congregation. Then Beth Shalom merged with Temple Beth Am in nearby Lakewood, NJ and built a modern synagogue in 2010. So the original Toms River Jewish Farmers Community Hall was sold to the Messiah Bible Church which notes the building’s Jewish roots on its website.
Today, most of the Toms River Jewish farmers have left agriculture. But their heritage can still be savored at Wallach’s Farm Market & Deli on Route 9, heir to the farm started by Louis and Hannah Wallach in 1926.
Much of the information in this post is cited in the links and footnotes. Any data not cited was drawn from the oral histories of Toms River Jewish farmers collected by Mildred Robinson and Jeanne Littman. I am very grateful to Ken Robinson, Mildred’s son, for sharing these with me. Not only are they a source of wonderful information. They also supplied many clues from which I was able to piece together many facets of the Toms River story. Do read them. They are marvelous.