Jewish Farmers on the Canadian Prairies

Please do click on the links in the text. They lead to so much fascinating information.

This post on Jewish farmers on the Canadian prairies was inspired by Land of Hope, the memoirs of Clara Hoffer. In 1907 Clara’s husband, Israel, co-founded the Sonnenfeld Colony in Saskatchewan. Clara had lived previously a little further north with her parents in the Lipton Colony, which was founded by Baron Hirsch’s Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) in 1901. Land of Hope was sent to me by Mark Gardner whose grandfather Aaron and great-uncle Harry also settled in Sonnenfeld. I am very grateful.

The Background

Louis Rosenberg, JCA Western Canada Director, 1916. Courtesy of Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada.

Between 1884 and 1912 thirty-one Jewish farming settlements were formed on the Canadian prairies spread out among three western provinces, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. 1 That is quite a hefty figure. Especially, when we remember that farming was not at all a typical Jewish profession where these settlers came from, Eastern Europe and Russia.

But somehow in Canada, things were different. As the Western Canada Director of Baron Hirsch’s Jewish Colonization Association, Louis Rosenberg noted, among all the peoples who settled in Canada, the percentage of those who farmed in Canada is lower than the percentage who farmed in their country of origin. Except for the Jews. By coming to Canada the Jews actually increased the percentage of farmers in their community. 2

And in Saskatchewan where most of the Jewish farming colonies were located, Jewish homesteaders were some of the first in the province. They arrived before the Doukhobors, Russians, Germans, Hungarians, and Ukrainians. “Only the “Mennonites and immigrants from Britain and Iceland,” preceded the Jews.3 In fact, the earliest marked grave in all of the Canadian prairies can be found in the Hirsch Colony cemetery. It belongs to Judah Blank and is dated December 18, 1894. 4

Baron Hirsch Helps Them Out

Baron Maurice de Hirsch

Baron Hirsch’s generosity helped many of these farmers. ( For a thorough discussion of how Baron Hirsch funds came to Canada see Chiel, Arthur (1961) Agricultural Attempts, “The Jews of Manitoba, ” University of Toronto Press, 1961. ) Hirsch’s Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) only established two of the colonies, Hirsch and Lipton. But there was not one farming community “in the whole of Canada that [did] not benefit … from the assistance of [the JCA].” 5 The JCA helped build synagogues, offered the original capital for cooperatives, paid for teachers and rabbis, and gave out loans at half the usual bank rates, over 2000 loans between 1900 and 1923. 6

Spirit of Jewish farm colonies lives on, Leader-Post, Regina, July 5, 1980, pp. 8-9.

In fact, when the Regina, Saskatchewan Leader-Post published a story in July 1980 on the Jewish Farming Communities, they chose as their lead photo a portrait of the Baron.

This post is just an outline of this Canadian prairie story and doesn’t cover all of the settlements. There is so much more to tell and so many wonderful sources. So click on all the links in the text and footnotes and enjoy the richness of this history. Note that in footnote nr. 7 you can find a list of major works on this agricultural adventure.7

And if you are looking for information on a particular Jewish Canadian prairie farmer go to the website of the Canadian Jewish Heritage Network and put his or her name into the search bar. You could be amazed by what you find.

The Beginning

Sir Alexander Galt8

The year was 1882 and Sir Alexander Galt, Canada’s High Commissioner (Ambassador) in London was looking to help the Canadian government populate the Canadian West. The West had just become part of Canada a dozen years before. A transcontinental railroad, the Canadian Pacific, was being built, and treaties with the indigenous peoples had made the land available for settlers. Interestingly, the Canadians not only sought to build out their nation. They also wanted to settle the West quickly because they feared that pioneers in the United States would seek to extend the border further north. In addition, Galt had plans to build railroads to hook up with the transcontinental to transfer the coal from his newly purchased mines.

Sigue leyendo
  1. FRIEDGUT, T. H. (2007). Jewish pioneers on Canada’s prairies: The Lipton Jewish agricultural colony. Jewish History, 21(3/4), p. 390. []
  2. Rosenberg, Louis, (1939) ” “Jews in Agriculture,” in Canada’s Jews: A social and economic study of Jews in Canada in the 1930s, p 218. , Text available at archive.net To use archive.net you need to establish a free account. []
  3. Feldman, Anna (1995) A Woman of Valor, Who Can Find, Jewish-Saskatchewan Women in Two Rural Settings, 1882-1939, Historical Essays on Saskatchewan Women, eds: David De Brou, ‎Aileen Moffatt, University of Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, p. 62 []
  4. Archer, John, Early Jewish Settlement in Western Canada, Part II, Viewpoint, Vol. 2, No. 4, 1967, p. 4 []
  5. Rosenberg (1939) p 218. archive.net To use archive.net you need to establish a free account. []
  6. Belkin, Simon (1926), “Jewish Colonization in Canada,” in Arthur Daniel Hart, ed., The Jew in Canada (Toronto and Montreal), pp. 486-487 (pp. 506-507 in the digital version. ) []
  7. Major Works on Jewish Farmers on the Canadian Prairies:

    Chiel, Arthur (1961) “Agricultural Attempts, “The Jews of Manitoba, ” University of Toronto Press, pp. 43- 47,

    Settling the West: Immigration to the Prairies from 1867 to 1914, Canadian Museum of Immigration, Jan. 2022.

    Belkin, Simon (1926), “Jewish Colonization in Canada,” in Arthur Daniel Hart, ed., The Jew in Canada (Toronto and Montreal), pp. 483-488 (pp. 503-508 in the digital version),

    Wolff, Martin. “THE JEWS OF CANADA.The American Jewish Year Book 27 (1925): 154–229. ( see especially Agricultural Colonies pp. 192-198)

    Rosenberg, Louis (1939), Jews in Agriculture, Canada’s Jews, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, pp. 217-225. (This is on archive.net. To use archive.net you need to establish a free account.) []

  8. Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3215898  []

Baron Hirsch’s Jewish Farmers Dream

Where did it come from?

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, White House Historical Association

Dreams of turning Jewish tradesmen into farmers date back to the mid-eighteenth century and feature some strange bedfellows. Besides Baron Hirsch, these utopian efforts involved Polish patriots, Russian Czars, German Mennonites, and of course, the Zionists. Like Thomas Jefferson, these Europeans and many other eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century thinkers believed that “cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens . . , the most vigorous. . . [and] the most virtuous.”1

The idea of turning Jews into farmers to make them vigorous and virtuous was first proposed In Eastern Europe in the mid-eighteenth century when Austria, Germany, and Russia were trying to gobble up Poland. To ward off this national decapitation the Polish government sought to strengthen Polish society.  One concern was the large number of non-assimilated Jews who had settled in Poland since the 12th Century because of the relatively liberal environment that allowed them to prosper and practice their religion. Many of the Jews worked for the nobles, managing estates and selling crops.   

By the late 18th century, half of the world’s Jews, about 1.5 million, lived in Poland. The Polish bourgeoisie considered this large community of Jews to be unwelcome competitors and the general populous put the Jews in the same basket as the nobles, resenting both.  Polish leaders saw these conflicts as one more cause for the weakness of the country. They thought that if Jews would become farmers they would be like everyone else and the conflicts would cease. Plans were drawn up but were never implemented.  And Austria, Germany, and Russia did gobble up Poland. 

The areas of Poland annexed by Russia are shown in mauve, lilac, and gray.

The majority of the Polish Jews, approximately 1 million, lived in the areas of Eastern Poland that were annexed by Russia between 1772 and 1795. (Listen to a discussion on how this annexation affected these Polish Jews.)

 So when Czar Alexander I rose to the throne in 1801 he faced a dual dilemma. First, how could he populate New Russia and Crimea in southern Russia, lands recently conquered from the Ottomans following the Russo-Turkish Wars? In addition, how could the Czar integrate the one million Jews who had recently come under Russian rule through these partitions of Poland

Sigue leyendo
  1. JEFFERSON, Thomas. Letter to John Jay, Aug. 23, 1785, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (DLC) Jefferson Quotes and Family Letters, Thomas Jefferson, Monticello. []