EnviroJews Avant La Lettre

The Wonders of America

Woodbine, N.J.: Fifteen Acres and a Shul. Residents of the settlement in 1910.
COURTESY OF PHILADELPHIA JEWISH ARCHIVES CENTER IN URBAN ARCHIVES OF TEMPLE UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES
Woodbine, N.J.: Fifteen Acres and a Shul. Residents of the settlement in 1910.

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published November 04, 2009, issue of November 13, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

When it comes to talk of sustainable agriculture and eco-Judaism, the history of American Jewry’s attempts to create an equally sustainable class of Jewish “agriculturists” has gotten lost in the shuffle. That’s a shame, because the story of how largely urban immigrants from Eastern Europe found themselves harvesting beans and cultivating chickens is a whopping good yarn, as well as a heartening tale of social uplift.

At a time early in the 20th century when thousands of impoverished immigrants sought a toehold in the New World, philanthropically minded organizations such as the Baron de Hirsch Fund made a point of getting them onto the land. Tilling the soil, it was widely believed, would not only relieve the congestion of the immigrant neighborhood, but also transform the neighborhood’s “alien” residents into able-bodied, hard-working Americans at one with the natural order. An experiment in social engineering designed to stand on its head the widespread notion that a Jew with a hoe was an unnatural creature, the efforts of the Baron de Hirsch Society and its offshoot, the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, seemed so novel, so downright improbable, that the contemporary, non-Jewish press had a field day, filling its pages with detailed accounts of life on the farm.

With barely contained amusement, it wrote of the “well-ordered” and “cleanly” characteristics of Jewish farming communities, of “rosy children everywhere” and of the absence of Yiddish signage — a pointed contrast to Manhattan’s Lower East Side in virtually every respect.

Eager to make the case that farming was a “peaceful way of life,” the Baron de Hirsch Fund set its sights on Woodbine, N.J. That rural and southernmost part of the state “for some occult reason, has been the site of an unusual number of social and sociological experiments,” The New York Times reported in 1902. But the reason for establishing a farming community or “colony,” as it was commonly called, in that neck of the woods was not too hard to find: Woodbine was bound to the affluent seaside communities of Atlantic City and Elberon, N.J., as well as to the greater metropolitan area by train — the West Jersey and Seashore branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad — making it easy to get its bushels of grapes, corn, cabbages and fruits to market.

From that perspective, Woodbine made good economic sense. But the well-intentioned folks at Baron de Hirsch — no farmers, they — didn’t reckon with the sandy, swampy and inconsistent soil or, for that matter, with the swarms of mosquitoes that tormented the locals every summer. (“The mosquito output is simply beyond the power of measurement,” an eyewitness related in 1912.) They also didn’t reckon with the fierce show of independence demonstrated by Woodbine’s feisty residents, who were quick to complain about this, that and the other thing. The community’s archives, which can be consulted at the American Jewish Historical Society, are filled to the brim with laments: about the weather, lackluster crops and the officious ways of the colony’s administrators. Chafing under the latter’s heavy-handedness and elaborate web of rules, residents sometimes took matters into their own hands. In 1909, when the

Baron de Hirsch Fund nixed the idea of showing movies, fearful lest their putatively salacious content undermine Woodbine’s moral integrity, disgruntled residents, signing their names in Yiddish, got up a petition in protest. Ultimately, the powers that be bowed to the “wishes of the people” and agreed to hold occasional movie screenings, provided that a committee composed of both locals and administrators would vet the films’ content.

In the end, the farming life was no match for the movies and other perquisites of modernity. Despite the “homely blessings that agriculture bestows on its votaries,” as one enraptured champion would have it, the Jewish agriculturist was unable to keep his offspring down on the farm for too long. City life, and its manifold possibilities, beckoned alluringly, rendering most Jewish farming colonies a one-generation phenomenon. All the same, Woodbine and thousands of its counterparts throughout the nation deserved their day in the sun. While they lasted, these enterprises not only contributed materially to America’s bounty, but also underscored the Jewish community’s commitment to improving the lives of its members, and its collective belief in the regenerative possibilities of the soil.


Click here to see images from the Philadelphia Jewish Archive’s exhibit “Woodbine, Jew Jersey: Fifteen Acres and a Shul”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.