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

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  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. []

FLEISCHMANNS

A HEBREW HAMLET IN THE CATSKILLS

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.

Did Baron Hirsch assist these farmers or contribute funds for the synagogue the Fleischmanns’ Jewish community built in 1920, Congregation B’nai Israel? The answer will have to wait until I can visit the Baron Hirsch archives in New York sometime this year. But meanwhile here is some history of this community taken from a presentation at Congregation B’nai Israel I made in July 2021 which you can watch here.

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!

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  1. New York Times, June 19, 1877, p. 1. []

The Catskills, Farming the Jewish Alps

Hospitality and Kosher Chickens

Original Grossinger Farm at Ferndale, Library of Congress, John Margolies, photographer

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. 

Grossingers Front View, Liberty, NY, Library of Congress, John Margolies, photographer

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.

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  1. 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. []

Nightingale’s Nest, a Catskill Summer Story

This delightful short story was offered to thebaronhirschcommunity.org by the author’s daughter, Nora Fischer Kisch, and the author’s niece and nephew, Tamra Hope Miller and Jon Meyerson. We are very grateful for their generosity.

An Ulster County farm in 1922

The Nightingale’s Nest takes place in 1920 on a Jewish farm in Ulster County NY, in the Catskill mountains, 100 miles northwest of Manhattan. You can read more about Jewish farming in the Catskills and the Baron Hirsch Fund’s support for these efforts right here.

Many Jewish farmers in the Catskills,, like the family in The Nightingale’s Nest, rented rooms to summer visitors from crowded New York neighborhoods. These paying guests frequently were on the kuchalayn plan, cooking their own meals, offering the farmers a ready market for their products. Like the Lippman – Miller family, from Belarus, described in this story, these Jewish farmers often obtained financing to purchase these farms from the Baron Hirsch Jewish Agricultural Society.

In 1936 the author and her mystery writer husband, Bruno Fischer, returned to the idyllic landscapes north of New York City where they became founders of the Three Arrows Cooperative Society , a 125 acre vacation colony based on socialist ideas. Located just south of the Catskills in Putnam Valley, NY , Three Arrows is still active and homes are for sale.

The Catskill’s Nightingale’s Nest

by Ruth Fischer
The author, Ruth Fischer, about the time when she wrote the Nightingale’s Nest. ( courtesy of Nora Fischer Kisch)

Nobody cared for animals more than Grandma, if they met her simple specifications of giving milk or eggs. She tolerated a cat for necessary service, but it was only grudgingly given house room.


For as long as I can remember, there was a running battle between my grandmother and grandfather because of his affection for a horse. During the summer when the horse grazed on the open fields and required no greater expenditure than labor, she could overlook his absurd extravagance. But in the winter it was a different story; she would make life miserable for poor Grandpa when the feed bills came in.

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