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 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?
Where did early 20th Century Jewish shopkeepers earn so much that they wintered in Paris’ most elegant hotel? In Fleischmanns, a summer home for wealthy German-American Jews, founded in the Western Catskills, in 1883 by Charles Fleischmann of the yeast company fame.
These wealthy summer residents drew lots of Jewish entrepreneurs, many of Hungarian origin, who set up stores, hotels, and camps to service this affluent community. Beginning in the second decade of the 20th Century Eastern European Jewish farmers, storekeepers, and summer visitors also added to the area’s population.
How did Fleischmanns become a Jewish village? It all started with Joseph Seligmann, a Jew from Bavaria. He arrived in the US in 1837 at the age of 18. By the late 1870s, he was a multi-millionaire, his family having made a fortune clothing the Union army. Years later they even helped finance the Panama Canal.
In the summer of 1877, Seligmann took his family to Saratoga, NY a very fashionable resort, to stay at the Grand Union Hotel where they had stayed before. But this time he and his family were turned away because they were “Hebrews”. As we shall see, it could be said that this act of anti-Semitism was what caused Fleischmann’s founding.
The Seligmann affair became a major scandal widely reported, including in the NY Times. 1. There was even a song written about it:
“The Hebrews they need not apply; the reason we do not know why; But still they do say, it’s a free country; where the Hebrews they need not apply!“
This story was kindly shared by Joyce Zelnick Weiss. Another story of Growing up on a Chicken Farmin Toms River, by Joyce’s husband Ben Weiss can be found by clicking here.
How did a little girl from the big city end up on a chicken farm in the middle of New Jersey?
I will try to tell you my story of living on a farm in the middle of nowhere. In the 1940s Toms River was much further from Brooklyn than it is now. Transportation was not readily available. We would ride on a bus for a few hours while passengers came and went at various stops in New Jersey. For those lucky enough to have a car it was a shorter trip.
BROOKLYN – TOMS RIVER
I was 9 years old when my father, Max, and mother, Bess, decided to move to Toms River. My father was a pharmacist who owned his own store in Brooklyn, N.Y. We lived on the top floor of a two-family house, and Bess’s parents lived downstairs. My parents were immigrants from Ukraine, and it was common to live close to the relatives and friends that one knew from the old country. So my comfort circle of people that I saw all the time were mostly all related to us.
We used to visit my Uncle Philip and Aunt Bertha in Toms River, New Jersey, on their chicken farm which they bought after selling their grocery business in Newark, N.J. Uncle Philip was one of my father’s older brothers, and he was married to Aunt Bertha.
I don’t know how my relatives ended up in TomsRiver, and I never did find out but, for reasons unknown to me, my parents decided that getting out of the city and moving to the country was a good decision for them and for their children. I don’t recall how long it took for us to pack up and move, but before I knew what was happening, we had moved.
In 1913, Selig and Malke Grossinger, aided by the Baron Hirsch Fund’s Jewish Agricultural Society (JAS), bought a farm in the Catskills Mountains in Ferndale, New York, 100 miles north of Manhattan. They began to take in paying guests who were fleeing New York City’s heat and humidity each summer. 1
The Grossingers were among the close to two thousand other Jewish immigrant families who bought farms in the foothills of the Catskills mountains in the 1890s or during the first decades of the twentieth century, many with JAS assistance. Like these other farmers, the Grossingers found that the rocky Catskills soil, which had allowed them to buy the land cheaply, did not respond well to crop raising.
But summer guests seeking cool air and kosher food were indeed profitable. The Grossingers’ enterprise became extremely profitable, with 150,000 guests each year, served in a property of over 1200 acres that boasted its own airfield and performers as famous as Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis. Grossingers was also the first resort in the country to use artificial snow on its ski slopes. And Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher were married at Grossingers.
Lavender, Abraham, and Steinberg, Clarence, Jewish farmers of the Catskills, In the Catskills, A Century of the Jewish Experience in The Mountains. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. p. 33. [↩]
Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a German financier, created a $2,400,000 fund in 1891 to assist Jewish refugees from Russia and Eastern Europe in achieving economic independence in the United States. With $37,500 of the fund, the settlers purchased land for the colony of Woodbine in southern New Jersey. In 1894 the Baron De Hirsch Agricultural School was founded to teach scientific agriculture and to provide young Jewish people with the practical skills to become successful farmers. It was the first agricultural high school in the nation.
In this post, videos, an interactive map and many references supplement a short history of Jewish farming communities in Connecticut.
Beginning as early as 1891, Baron Hirsch supported the settlement of Jewish farmers in Connecticut. By 1928 there were over 5000 Jewish farm families in the state. The Baron Hirsch Fund and its subsidiary the Jewish Agricultural Society (JAS) sponsored these projects. The projects continued throughout the first half of the 20th Century. They not only helped the Russian Jews escaping pogroms in the first part of the century but after WWII Holocaust survivors as well.