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Jewish Agricultural Colonies In America (Part I)

Introduction

(All quotes in this section are from “Jewish Agricultural Colonies in the United States” by Leo Shpall, Agricultural History, 24, 1950, page 121.)

There were very few Jewish farmers in Europe during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Indeed, in many parts of Europe Jews were forbidden to own land. Despite this there were some Jews who always felt they should return to the agrarian way of life their forefathers had pursued in ancient times, and that America was an ideal place to establish Jewish agricultural colonies.

“In 1819, William Davis Robinson printed and circulated a 40-page pamphlet in London entitled ‘Memoir Addressed to Persons of the Jewish Religion in Europe, on the Subject of Emigration to, and Settlement in, One of the Most Eligible Parts of the United States of North America.’ The object of the pamphlet was to induce wealthy European Jews to create a fund for the purchase of a large tract of land in the upper Mississippi and Missouri territory and found an agricultural settlement for poor Jews.

“According to Robinson’s plan, each immigrant was to receive a number of acres of land on credit. It also called for the transportation of the immigrants to their places of settlement, assistance in buying the necessary implements, and the establishment of rules governing the reimbursement of the capital. Robinson was confident that the investment would eventually prove of great advantage and magnitude. The prevailing opinion was that the entire project was designed to induce English Jews to buy land through Robinson’s mediation. Recent investigations prove, however, that it was a sincere attempt, but it received no response.

“In 1820, Moses Elias Levy conceived a plan to establish an agricultural settlement in the United States, and he purchased a vast tract of land in Alachua County, Florida. He settled Jewish families from Delaware, New York, and New Jersey and some from Europe on the land and spent more than $18,000 building houses and supplying the settlers with agricultural implements. By 1823, more than fifty persons were settled on the land. Levy had agents publicizing the project and praising the fertility of the soil. The project, however, was short lived as many immigrants hesitated to settle there because of lack of proper accommodations.”

In 1837 an agricultural colony named Sholom was founded at Wawarsing (Warwarsing) in Ulster County, New York. Under the leadership of Moses Cohen, some thirteen Jewish families settled there.

“The land was divided into lots of 5 acres each, and a site was selected for a village. Contracts were awarded to build houses at a cost of $400 each. The settlers requested the Congregation Anshe Chesed of New York to loan them a Sefer Torah until they could secure one from Europe, and they also asked for lamps for their synagogue.

“The newcomers cleared the land and built roads. For five years they tried to make farming pay, but circumstances forced them to add to their earnings from the produce of the land by manufacturing and trading. Notwithstanding, the colony carried on. The climax, however, came when the factories in the neighborhood were shut down. After a few years of further struggling, the settlers found it impossible to continue. They sold their belongings in 1842 and moved away.”

A Proposal by Julius Stern

The first issue of Reverend Isaac Leeser’s periodical The Occident was published in April 1843.[i] In it, a letter from Julius Stern, a resident of Philadelphia, appeared in which Stern stressed the necessity of settling Jews on land. Stern wrote:

“Being convinced that the Israelites of Germany do not enjoy the full privileges of citizens in our age, and that many causes operate to defer the attainment of this desirable object for a considerable time, I, some years ago, expressed a wish that a considerable number might emigrate to the United States and found a colony in some of the western territories.

About the Author: Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.


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