The Jewish Farmer
In 1843, Julius Stern of Philadelphia proposed in a Jewish journal called The Occident that a Jewish agricultural colony be established in the Northwest of the United States. Stern envisioned that such a colony would grow until it became a state within the United States and a haven for all persecuted Jews.
In 1852, a European Jew, Simeon Berman, founded a Jewish Agricultural Society in Cracow, Poland. He immigrated to the U.S. and tried to persuade Jews from New York, Cincinnati and St.Louis to to colonize the soil. This proposal was never realized. Indeed, Berman published a pamphlet in St. Louis in 1865 in the German language called “Constitution und Plan zur Gründung eines Jüdischen Agrikultur-Vereins” or “Constitution and Plan for the Founding of a Jewish Agricultural Society”. His ideas were wonderful. He foresaw Jewish independence on the land. He even envisioned new cities to be laid out by the Jewish farmers and imagined Jewish schools with English, German and Hebrew teachers.
All this came to nothing and Berman left for Israel, where he founded the Holy Land Settlement Society in 1870. That succeeded, as all of us who have been to Israel know, because we have seen it.
In this country agricultural efforts took a different turn, both for Jews and for all others.
There are today only 5 million farmers in all of the United States. These farmers constitute only 1.8% of our population. Among them are a few Jewish farmers, who are concentrated in New Jersey, Kansas and the Dakotas.
Yet, in the nineteenth century a quite different agricultural community existed here.
In the last year of that century, 1900, there were 5,737,372 farms in America and the average farm had 146 acres. Since then, the average farm size has increased enormously as corporate farming has displaced the farm families of earlier years.
Among these farmers were Jewish immigrants from Russia. Thus, in 1884, the British Lord Moses Montefiore sponsored a group called Am Olam (Eternal People), which established seven Jewish agricultural colonies in Kansas. These communities were called Beersheba, which already existed for two years, Lasker, Montefiore, Leeser, Touro, Gilead and Hebron.
Beersheba was the first of these colonies founded in 1882. They built sod houses, sod synagogues and schools in which children studied during the day and adults at night.
By the spring of 1883, Beersheba had more than 200 acres in production. Nevertheless, the community failed in 1886 because creditors reclaimed their livestock and their tools.
Then the newly founded Hebrew Union Agricultural Society assisted Eastern European Jews to establish agricultural careers. Other states also participated in this experiment, including Utah, Colorado, North Dakota, Oregon and Michigan. There was also a Jewish agricultural settlement in Sicily Island, Louisiana which a flood wiped out and there was a Jewish agricultural settlement in Oregon which was liquidated for debt in 1882.
The Ad Olam group had hoped to establish a home for the Jewish people fleeing the Russian Empire by the thousands and, after the accession of Alexander III to the throne of Russia in 1881, by the millions. Alexander III was a vicious bigot who blamed the murder of his father on “the Jews” because the killer, not at all Jewish, had a Jewish girlfriend.
Montefiore was another Kansas agricultural settlement begun by Jewish immigrants in 1884. The colony included 15 families. Yet drought defeated this colony as well, as many of its members moved to Lasker, which had been founded in 1885. Yet, by 1890, even Lasker was abandoned because drought had made farming impossible.
Both Gilead and Hebron had somewhat more success. Both colonies lasted from 1886 until 1895, when all the Jewish families had left. Jewish farming in Kansas came to an end by the beginning of the twentieth century. Today, there are a number of Jews in Kansas who descend from these farmers. Senator Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania was born in Kansas. He is one of only two Republican Jewish Senators of the U.S. Let us hope we Jews support Israel in the next election and vote for the Republican candidate, who has done more for Israel than any President in history.