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Soon after radicals assassinated Czar Alexander II of Russia in March 1881, false whispers of Jewish involvement provoked antisemitic violence and laws. Faced with this hostile environment and a crumbling economy, millions of Russian Jews set out to find new homes all over the world. Most settled in cities and found work in business or manufacturing. But did you know that others formed Jewish agricultural communities in remote fields from Palestine to Canada, and Argentina to Kansas?

Intellectuals and philanthropists believed that agriculture was a noble pursuit, and—at a time of rising antisemitism—one that would show that Jews were strong and capable of hard work that benefitted the larger society. Generations of Jewish families tilled southern New Jersey soil, in rural farmland dotted with orchards and canneries, near cities that bought their eggs, berries, milk, and tomatoes.

Why did New Jersey’s Jewish farming communities thrive for decades when those in other American states failed within a few years? Southern New Jersey was already well-farmed—and some Jewish colonists took over land that had already been cleared and cultivated by previous occupants. The climate and the land itself were more fertile than land in more rocky or flood-prone Western and Southern farming colonies.

Urban philanthropists were an important part of the equation—here, they carefully supplemented agricultural work with industry and education, and they could easily visit the colonies to see the benefits of their support.

Image: Garton Road Synagogue, ca. 2014
Today, the great-grandchildren of New Jersey’s Jewish farmers might be attracted to a new “back to the land” movement. Across the country, we are seeking out locally grown foods, creating community gardens in empty lots, enjoying hard work on communal farms, and reflecting on the connections between ecology and spirituality. This renewed interest in agricultural endeavors would be familiar to yesterday’s idealistic farmers. Will your kids get interested in raising their own food?

Courtesy of Cumberland County Cultural and Heritage Commission

This exhibition was made possible by Velda and David Levitsky.