Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

Although the Jews were an agricultural people from the days of antiquity, the contemporary common perception is that Jewish agronomy became an historical anachronism that all but ceased with their exile after the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, only to be reborn in Eretz Yisrael in the early days of the Yishuv at the turn of the twentieth century, when Jewish settlers began to “make the desert bloom.” In fact, the dearth of Jewish farming through two millennia is primarily attributable to the fact that they lived in countries where Jewish ownership of land was prohibited and, given the sad centuries-long history of antisemitism, pogroms, evictions, and exiles, land ownership and farming were not generally pursued by Jews, leaving them no choice but to enter the fields of commerce and industry.

However, in all places where Jews were protected by the government and were permitted to own land, many did turn to agriculture, and this article considers the fascinating history and evolution of Jewish farming in the United States from the end of the nineteenth century through the early twentieth century.


Jews engaged in agriculture in America even as early as colonial days. For example, in a failed attempt to create an agricultural colony as a haven for oppressed Jews, Mordechai Manuel Noah, one of the most influential Jewish Americans of all time and the first American-born Jew to reach national prominence, purchased 17,000 acres of uninhabited land at Grand Island on the Niagara River near Buffalo in upstate New York, which he called “Ararat” (1825). In 1837, several Russian Jewish Immigrants living in New York established Shalom, an agricultural colony led by Moses Cohen in Ulster County, New York, which also failed, and ceased operations in 1842.

The first mass movement to establish Jewish agriculture in America was the Am Olam (“Eternal People”) movement, a radical Russian Jewish movement influenced by the Haskalah (the Jewish “Enlightenment”). Founded in 1881 by Mania Bakl and Moshe Herder in Odessa in response to homicidal anti-Jewish pogroms sweeping Ukraine following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, it was comprised of socialist idealists who were determined to prove to the world that Jews could succeed as farmers through the adoption of communist ideology. Unlike BILU, which chose to leave Russia for Eretz Yisrael, Am Olam’s purpose was to create socialist agricultural communities in other countries, including the United States, and the first contingent of 70 Jewish settlers under its auspices left for America from Yelizavetgrad in the spring of 1881.

According to an 1882 Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society report, many Jewish immigrants wanted to become farmers on their own land, but the Society lacked the funds to provide for such colonization efforts. Accordingly, early support for these farmers came primarily from local Jewish social service organizations and organizations formed in local communities specifically to provide assistance to them. From 1881 to 1886, Am Olam settled more than 20 agricultural colonies in far-flung locations around the United States, but all experienced a premature birth, a brief and difficult struggle, and ultimate dissolution. The longest lasting Am Olam colony was “New Odessa,” established by 70 people near Portland, Oregon in 1882, which was ultimately dissolved in 1887 because of internal quarreling among the communist farmers.

Baron Maurice de Hirsch original portrait.

However, Jewish farming in the United States in earnest can trace its origins to Baron Maurice de Hirsch, one of the wealthiest Jews in Europe, who established a branch of his Jewish Colonization Society in New York in 1891; named it the Baron de Hirsch Fund; endowed it with $2.4 million (equivalent to about $800 million in today’s dollars); and offered, among other aid to immigrants, active support for agricultural colonization. Hirsch considered Jewish possession of a farm deed to constitute both returning Jews to their “glorious Biblical past” and the “equivalent to a Bill of Rights.”

Hirsch’s efforts bore immediate results: the Hirsch Fund purchased 5,000 acres in Cape May County, New Jersey, to establish an agricultural colony (1891); he established the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural College in Woodbine, New Jersey (1894), the first American advanced school dedicated exclusively to the study of the agricultural sciences; and by 1899, the Fund had provided assistance to 600 Jewish immigrant families in New York City to become farmers in New England. Although the Hirsch Fund purchased large tracts of uncleared land far from cities and attempted to settle groups on them, the farm colonies generally failed, primarily because the Jewish farmers lacked experience and the rocky soil of many of the farms proved inarable, to the point that the colonies averaged less than five seasons.

January 6, 1901, article in The Brooklyn Day Eagle: “Jews’ Attempts at Farming in America are Great Successes.”

During the early 1900s, Jewish farmers concluded that the numerical weakness of Jewish farming communities could only be overcome through a strong, centralizing power and that attempts at group settlement and collective ownership must give way to settling individual families on farms. Accordingly, on January 23, 1900, the Baron De Hirsh Fund founded the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Assistance Society (JAIAS) – also known as the Jewish Agricultural Society – in New York City, with its stated purpose:

The encouragement of farming among Jewish immigrants in the United States. Activities: Maintains agricultural bureau of information and advice; assists Jewish immigrants to become farmers by helping them to find suitable farms and by loans on favorable terms; loans money to Jewish farmers who require financial assistance; maintains Farm Labor Bureau for the placing out of Jewish young men as farm laborers. Publishes The Jewish Farmer, a monthly agricultural paper, in Yiddish; maintains itinerant agricultural instructors to lecture to farmers on agricultural topics, conduct demonstrations on their own farms, and organize the farmers into associations for their material, educational, social, and religious advancement; grants free scholarships at agricultural colleges to children of Jewish farmers.

Because of the failures of early large-scale group settlements, the JAIAS essentially focused on settling individual families on abandoned farms near metropolitan areas. It provided loans to thousands of Jewish farmers and would-be farmers; advised them how to farm by sending out experts; helped place Jewish farm workers through its Farm Labor Bureau; and, for fifty years, published Der Idisher Farmer (“The Jewish Farmer”), an illustrated monthly magazine in Yiddish, which billed itself on its masthead as “The Only Jewish Agricultural Journal in the World” and whose articles included titles such as “Ten Commandments for Prospective Farmers.” According to its advertising handbill:

The Jewish Farmer advertising handbill.


is the only magazine teaching the Jewish farmer all branches of agriculture in his own language.


is not published for profit, but for the purpose of encouraging farming among the Jews and the imparting of knowledge and education to those who make farming their vocation in life.


publishes the news and happenings among Jewish farmers all over the [sic]


accepts only the most reliable advertising and its readers patronize the advertisers.

Subscription 50c. The Year, 3 years for $1.00.

Starting in the 1910s, dairy farming became a leading source of income for many Jewish farmers, particularly around the Catskills in New York and Connecticut, because dairy profitability was not related to arable soil quality and climate conditions. Similarly, poultry production became a leading enterprise for many Jewish farmers in the 1920s for essentially the same reason, particularly in New Jersey where, by the late 1920s, the state had become “the egg basket of the East” and Jewish farmers accounted for about 75 percent of the state’s egg production.

Furthermore, many Jewish farmers at this time turned to non-farming income sources to supplement their earnings, including particularly the establishment of summer camps and boarding and vacation lodgings for urban Jews who could not otherwise afford such accommodations – and who, due to overt public antisemitism, were not permitted elsewhere. These lodgings offered reasonable proximity to urban centers, affordability, comfortable summer climates, and kosher food for guests. As such, it was American Jewish farmers who launched what has become known as “the Borscht Belt” and who were responsible for initiating what has become affectionately known among Jews as “going up to the mountains.”

Cover of The Jewish Vacation Guide.

The Jewish Vacation Guide, first published around 1916, was designed to assist, advise and protect Jews who faced refusal of service and even violent attacks when traveling to unfamiliar sites. Published by the Federation of Jewish Farmers of America primarily in Yiddish, it provided an entire network of places where Jews were welcome and where it was safe for them to eat, sleep and visit. When Jewish farmers realized that this could prove lucrative, they began to recreate their farmhouses as boardinghouses, and later into resorts, which they listed in The Jewish Vacation Guide.

Although The Jewish Vacation Guide remains almost entirely unknown, it inspired postman Victor Hugo Green to write his Negro Motorist Green Book (1936), a much better-known similar guide for Black people. Green specifically credited Jewish guides for serving as the model for his book, noting that “the Jewish press had long printed information about places that are restricted.”

Convention booklet for the First Annual Convention of The Federation of Jewish Farmers of America held in October 1909.

In 1909, the JAIAS founded the Federation of Jewish Farmers of America, a federation of thirteen Jewish farming organizations organized in New York City. The early accomplishment of the JAIAS, which differed from other agencies in that it was formed and run by the farmers themselves, included the establishment of 19 credit unions, creating the Agrarian Bank, and providing citizenship education for Jewish families.

During its first year, the Federation held an agricultural convention and fair at the Educational Alliance building in New York City during the week-long fall harvest holiday of Sukkot. Attended by over 50,000 visitors, this was an event with deep significance to Jews and there was much jubilation as Jewish farmers, many of them survivors of Russian pogroms, proudly exhibited the fruits of their hands in the New World. Exhibited here are three original photographs taken at the fair.


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Front of Agricultural Fair medal awarded to S. Kaufman for his cabbage collection.

The fair boasted 925 entries by 225 exhibitors and included exhibits on everything from beekeeping to butter churning to a broad variety of fruits and vegetables, and the first prize was awarded to Jewish farmers who came from far away North Dakota, who won for their exhibit on potatoes. The fair attracted broad public attention and generated a tremendous positive response, including acclaim from non-Jewish agricultural experts in attendance. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the fair may have been the recasting of public opinion about Jewish farming when fair attendees saw the Jewish farmers as proud, independent, healthy and content, leading one of the most prestigious and influential progressive journals of the time to describe the efforts of American Jewish farmers as “farms of wonder.”

Hirsch school ad.

The exhibit that attracted the most attention, however, was that of the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural School at Woodbine, discussed above. One of the most prestigious agricultural schools in the United States, the Cornell Agricultural College, and many others, including New Haven Experiment Station, the New Jersey College of Agriculture, and the Massachusetts Agricultural College, participated in the exhibition.

In subsequent years, the conventions, which were always held over Sukkot, continued to offer farmers the opportunity to exhibit their assorted agricultural products, and the Federation also gave Jewish farmers more purchasing power by, among other things, launching a bureau that liberally granted credit to struggling farmers who needed assistance and offering reduced prices on essential goods to Jewish farmers in need, such as seeds and farming implements.

According to the Guide to the United States for the Jewish Immigrant (1916) by John Foster Carr:

The cost of food is rising in America, and so the profits of farming and gardening are constantly increasing. For many Jews here is an excellent chance of work and prosperous living. Work in the city at good wages is often temporary, and in the cities frequently come those crises that throw men out of work. These periods of idleness quickly consume the savings you have accumulated by your labor. But by farming a poor man in a short time can often become independent, if besides some absolutely necessary experience of agriculture, he has persistence, industry, and common intelligence. Country life is healthier for yourself and your family. You are protected from diseases common in the city, and, more important still, the moral health of your boys and girls will be better protected. And in the country the Jew finds an advantage of peace and happiness that are impossible in the city, because in the city it is difficult for him to observe the Sabbath as his conscience dictates; but in the country he has complete religious freedom, and in peace can worship God according to the custom of his fathers.

Thousands of Jews are succeeding here in farming and gardening. To succeed, you need to understand American farming and follow the methods that are making others successful. There are many practical opportunities of obtaining this knowledge.

He goes on to explain how a Jew can become a farmer:

Agricultural Schools and Colleges. For Jewish young men there is the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural School, at Woodbine, New Jersey. This is open to all able-bodied young men who have a working knowledge of English. The course is of one or two years. Board and tuition are free. There is also the National Farm School, at Farm School, Pennsylvania. The requirements of admission are nearly the same as for the Baron de Hirsch School, but the course is four years.

Besides these, every state in the United States has an Agricultural College and Experiment Station supported by the Government, and tuition is free to all residents of the state. The course is generally of four years, though there are many special courses, some as short as six weeks. For the regular course and examination is required, which is about equal to that set for the sixth class of a Gymnasium or Real Schule. For the shorter courses only a working knowledge of English is necessary and ability to profit by the instruction. There are many opportunities for graduates of such colleges in the Government service, in teaching, the management of estates, and similar positions.

Of the greatest use to Jewish farmers and Jews who wish to become farmers is the Jewish Agricultural And Industrial Aid Society, at 174 Second Avenue, New York City. It is a foundation of the Baron de Hirsch Fund. It publishes “The Jewish Farmer,” an illustrated monthly magazine in Yiddish, for those who, knowing no English, cannot read the government agricultural publications. It has travelling instructors who lecture to farmers, organize them into associations and advise them as to their work. It also has free scholarships given children of Jewish farmers for the winter term of agricultural colleges, when their work can best be spared at home.

This Society through its free Farm Labor Bureau finds positions for those who wish to work on farms. Some are placed with Jewish farmers. This enables men of ability to learn American farming methods, learn English and quickly become Americans. Many who seek positions as farm hands have more or less capital of their own, and their only purpose in seeking such work is to gain the necessary knowledge before embarking on their own account. For the Jew wishing to become a farmer, there is no better way of finding out if he is fitted for agriculture. Such positions are easiest obtained for single men.

Besides such practical educational work, this Society assists Jewish immigrants to become farmers in other ways. It gives free advice. It helps find suitable farms. It assists Jewish farming communities to organize for their material, social and religious improvement, and has helped in the organization of the Federation of Jewish Farmers of America.

Through the Federation’s efforts, the number of local Jewish farmer’s associations increased to 35 in less than two years. Oscar S. Straus – as Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of Commerce and Labor, the first Jewish cabinet secretary – delivered an opening address at the Federation’s New York convention in 1913, and two years later there were over 6,000 American Jewish farmers spread across almost every state in the Union, with the large majority of them in Eastern seaboard states, mostly in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts. The cohesive communities across the country launched their own cooperatives and other mutual aid associations, including insurance and loans, and many were self-contained Jewish communities with shuls, shochets (ritual slaughterers), and burial societies, many of which received broad religious financial support from the Federation of Jewish Farmers.

Between the world wars, almost eight percent of all American Jews were farmers but, subject to the same economic and environmental vagaries as non-Jewish farmers, the commodities market crash in the early 1890s ravaged development so that, by the dawn of the 20th century, only about 1,000 Jewish farmers remained. By 1910, the number had risen to about 4,000 families, but many of these family farms went under during the Depression years. However, a number of Jewish farmers managed to survive the Great Depression in the face of great adversity so that, by 1933, Jewish farmers in the United States owned a total of 1.5 million acres worth approximately $150 million (well over $3 billion in today’s dollars). Jewish farmers thrived during World War II given the high demand for eggs and other products and, at its peak immediately after the war, the Jewish farm population in America grew to about 25,000 families and some 100,000 people.

However, the number of Jewish farmers soon declined as America became more industrialized and as huge farming enterprises began to replace the small family farm. The Jewish Farmer magazine ceased publication in 1959 and the Jewish Agricultural Society ceased operations in 1965.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].