instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

Carol's Blog on Immigration Issues

Jewish Homesteading in North Dakota

As my research for A Chance for Land and Fresh Air cleared, a complicated series of circumstance had created a Russian Jewish farming settlement in the hills of Sharon, Connecticut.

 

Forbidden to own land or farm in the Russian Pale of Settlement, Jews had been confined to "unproductive" professions, which had exacerbated anti-Semitism. In response, young Russian Jews dreamed of farming—some in Palestine, and others in the Americas.  Inspired by the terrible situation of Russian Jews, Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a wealthy Belgian Jewish philanthropist, supported early Jewish farm settlements in the US and Argentina.  In 1900, the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society (JAIAS) was established on Manhattan's Lower East Side with money from de Hirsch's estate to offer Jews loans for mortgages and farm implements, as well as the necessary information and supports needed by Jews who had never farmed succeed at farming.

Sharon was on the New York Central train line, a ride from New York not much longer than the two-and-a-half hours it takes today. Moreover, a number of farms were for sale in the stony hills above Sharon.  The new immigrants could stay in touch with the City's vibrant Jewish immigrant community—and, when they needed to subsidize their farm incomes, offer kosher vacations to New York Jews. Indeed, a good percentage of the JAIAS grants were for farms in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey, all within a few hours of the Lower East Side, and most of the farmers offered kosher resorts and farm vacations.

 

As I worked on the exhibit and the book, I met people who grew up in JAIAS-funded farming communities as far away as Saskatchewan, and Iowa.  Though I was charmed by their family stories, my mental image of the Jewish farming movement remained centered on the East Coast. 

 

Yet recently my dear friend Marnie Mueller announced that her great grandmother, Annie Kahan, had homesteaded in North Dakota, with expenses for clothing and food, and perhaps for seed and farming equipment, paid for by Baron de Hirsch. Whereas Jews in the east bought land that had already been farmed—and was often over-farmed—at the end of the nineteenth century North Dakota remained so unsettled by Europeans that the US government gave 160 acres to any European who stayed on the land for at least five years.

 

In 1968, the Washington State Jewish Archives at the University of Washington in Seattle conducted an interview with Annie Kahan's daughter, Marnie's grandmother, Sarah Siegel, who was eighty-three at the time. (If you want to hear Sarah's story, told in her lovely elegant voice, CLICK HERE.

The Archive describes the interview as follows.

 

Sarah Siegel was born in St. Paul in 1885. Her father, Louis Kahan, had emigrated from Poland in 1881 or 1882 to St. Paul, Minnesota where he repaired and rented houses to earn enough money to bring his family to the United States. In 1886, the family moved to North Dakota and settled on a 160-acre homestead just 10 miles from Devil's Lake, a colony funded by Baron de Hirsch. In addition to his farming activities, Mr. Kahan was responsible for the distribution of clothing and food sent by Mr. de Hirsch.

 

Mrs. Siegel relates how blizzards, grasshoppers and spring frosts hampered farming efforts. She describes the relationship that existed between the sharecroppers and the overseers from Devil's Lake, and briefly describes the Jewish Orthodox services there. In 1891 the family moved to Seattle, where they first opened a clothing store and then a trunk and suitcase factory. Mrs. Siegel discusses her father's writings on religion and his philosophy on religious unity. She also mentions other Seattle families who may have been at Devil's Lake -- the Shapiros, Julius Friedman and the Cohens.


The Jewish Virtual Library adds the following information on Jewish settlements in North Dakota:

 

At least 800 Jewish individuals filed for land between 1880 and 1916. They generally settled in clusters. Many [after 1900] were aided by the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society. In addition several of the earliest settlements, Painted Woods and Devils Lake, were aided by synagogues located in Minnesota's Twin Cities. Homesteaders endured great hardships such as plagues of grasshoppers, prairie fires, blizzards and drought. Most left after acquiring full land title (generally five years). A number settled in market towns along the two railroads that crossed the state and where they operated general stores.

 

By 1889 the country's growing railroad industry lured people to the eastern community of Grand Forks. A permanent congregation was established in 1892. It was from the pulpit of B'nai Israel Synagogue that President William McKinley urged the Jews to participate in the war with Spain. The city of Fargo also grew near the turn of the century and by 1896 a synagogue was chartered there. The Jews of North Dakota were engaged mainly in retailing. A few, such as Fargo Mayor Herschel Lashkowitz, and Federal Judge Myron Bright, distinguished themselves in politics.


A 1990 article by Janet E. Schulte in the Great Plains Quarterly offers more information on the 1200 Russian Jewish immigrants who homesteaded in North Dakota. 

 

What remains unclear in all these sources is how much funding Baron de Hirsch was doing across the United States before the establishment of the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, which began with funds from his estate after his death.  If Sarah Siegel remembers correctly, in addition to assistance from synagogues in Minnesota, homesteaders may have been receiving help from de Hirsch as early as the 1880s. 

Be the first to comment

Using All My Senses

Nathan and Rebecca Osofsky and their three daughters, Freda, Ida and Annie, soon after their arrival in Ellsworth

I kept discovering traces of several Russian Jewish farmers who lived up in Ellsworth between 1907 and 1920, where I now live. Finally, about a year and a half ago, I approached the Sharon Historical Society to ask whether they had done an exhibit on this seemingly little-known history. The conversation was short and to the point. No, there had never been such an exhibit. Would I curate one?

Though it’s hard to remember whether I even considered the skills and time involved, I’m a writer who was trained as an anthropologist: neither interviewing nor doing archival research seemed new. And I don’t think I considered what translating narrative into images on a wall would entail.

There were some sketchy months as both the director and the curator left and I continued my research alone. And then one day Marge Smith, the Society’s former curator, appeared. Although Marge would be doing two jobs until a new director was hired, she regretted the long absence of a history exhibit and was enthusiastic about my project.

I remember our first organizational meeting for A Chance for Land and Fresh Air: Russian Jewish Immigrants in Ellsworth and Amenia, 1907-1940. I had brought in an outline of the story and my sense of how each the three available rooms might be allocated. The first would describe the flight of Jews from the Russian Pale, and the creation of a fund by a Belgian Jewish philanthropist, Baron Moritz de Hirsch, to help Jewish immigrants purchase land and become farmers. The second room would focus on the decades the Russian Jews had spent in Ellsworth, subsidizing their dairy farms by opening their homes to kosher boarders. And the third room would follow these immigrants as their children reached high school age and they moved to Amenia, where they built a synagogue and turned the little village into a vibrant Jewish resort.

The timeline I had created to clarify the major events of my story seemed to excite Marge, who affixed it to the first wall with masking tape. (Over the next months, she would set it horizontally, decorating the major events with salient images, creating a dramatic timeline from 1880 to the present that covers one wall of the exhibit.) That day, Marge also taped up the photo I’d brought in of Baron de Hirsch, as well as other images and photos I’d begun to collect. Amazingly, she could already glimpse a visual story!

Marge listened carefully and imaginatively to whatever I brought her. I remember repeating a stirring anecdote a descendant had told me. “Let’s focus on half a dozen families,” Marge responded. “Telling their stories will make the most moving history.” I’d been troubled by how to weave together different family stories. Now, I saw I could describe the immigration experience through two families, the story of farming on Ellsworth through five other families, and the Amenia story through the same as well as new families.

Though I still had little idea of the ratio of images to text that viewers tolerate in an exhibit, I began to file both the narratives I was writing and the documents and photographs I was scanning under the appropriate family names in the Historical Society’s upstairs computer. Marge’s first storyboard showed me how we could combine a hand-written letter from a father to his son about life in Ellsworth with several photos and my narrative.

Watching Marge work with my material made me more creative. I began to tell the family stories in different ways—sometimes forming my narrative from a range of sources; at other times, letting the old-timer or descendant tell his or her own story. I also realized that we could cut up and re-use photos to emphasize the continuity of a character or story.

For months, our story remained two-dimensional—solely on the walls. Then Tim Euvrard, whose family farmed on the mountain, brought in old farming equipment for room 2. Room 3 would have a case of Jewish ritual objects in the center. When a friend lent a samovar, I installed it on the wooden table in room 1, and Marge suggested setting the table for tea, which we did with pieces from our own cupboards. For me, this table creates a poignant reminder of home life amidst the stories of uprooting told on the walls.

The last item to be added was music. Though the exhibit shows the resilience and inventiveness of the Russian Jewish immigrants, I wanted the music in room 1 to evoke the loss and yearning that are the price of that energy. Thus, Yiddish folk songs evoke the old world culture that was held onto even as it was being lost. In room 3, Benny Goodman, one of the great Jewish jazz musicians, should remind viewers that Amenia’s Russian Jews were already becoming Americans. But they were enriching America with their heritage as well as unique contributions.

Suddenly it was October 22nd, Opening Day! Though the opening began at four, by 3:30, cars were already parked on the lawn and soon after they reached far down the street. For the next several hours people packed into the Sharon Historical Society, obliterating all but the sounds of excited conversation, and making it hard to see either the narrative or the photos on exhibit. Over 230 people signed in—numbers never seen at the Sharon Historical Society. Since then, a steady stream of visitors has viewed the exhibit, some expressing gratitude and some visibly shaken by this untold story.

The exhibit is now permanently installed in Amenia's Congregation Beth David.  Read More 

Be the first to comment

A Chance for Land and Fresh Air - Opening October 22nd, 2016

Harry Marcus w horse on his farm on Modley Road

I came upon this hidden history of some 30 Jewish families who beginning in 1907 became dairy farmers in the Ellsworth Hills above my home in Sharon, CT. I examined the town’s land records, which, in turn, led me to census data and the archives of the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan, and back to Sharon and Amenia, to conduct interviews and collect family photographs, and other documents which has led to my role as curator of a new history exhibit, A Chance for Land and Fresh Air: Russian Jewish Immigrants in Ellsworth and Amenia, 1907-1940.

The exhibit highlights several families who continue to have farms in the area, including the Gorkofskys, Osofskys, and Paleys. Marge Smith, Sharon Historical Society Curator, has been instrumental in designing the exhibit. Joel Osofsky, whose grandfather settled in Ellsworth in 1907, has assisted with photographic reproduction and mounting.  Read More 

Be the first to comment

How Connecticut's Jewish Farmers Exemplify the Power of Philanthropy

[Originally published in Reformed Judaism]

I had been living in the hills above Sharon, CT, for some time when I heard that a Russian Jewish family had once lived about a mile away. Then a neighbor mentioned that his father had bought their several-hundred-acre farm from "a Jew" in 1926. The mention of a third Russian Jewish farmer, in his nineties and still living on his farm outside of Sharon, sent me to my town's land records, where I found references to "JAIAS" – the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society – under the mortgage details of these three farm purchases.  

    

At the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan, I learned that JAIAS was founded in 1900 on the Lower East Side with funds from the Belgian Jewish financier and philanthropist Baron Moritz de Hirsch. It turned out that JAIAS had provided mortgage assistance to 15 Jews between 1907 and 1925 for the purchase of farmland in the hills above Sharon.

One of the wealthiest men of his day, Baron Maurice de Hirsch (1831-1896) was moved by the relentless poverty and persecution of Russian Jews, who were forbidden to own land and confined to an area known as the Pale of Settlement. After Jews were blamed for the assassination of the czar in 1881, triggering a series of devastating pogroms, Hirsch appointed himself their savior.

 

Failing in his attempt to influence the Russian government to ameliorate its policies toward Jews, Hirsch began financing their mass emigration. He provided emergency funds for Russian Jewish refugees making their way through Europe and sponsored projects to help these refugees become self-sufficient farmers and craftsmen in their new countries.

 

Calling it "the object of my life," Hirsch described his goal as giving "my companions in faith the possibility of finding a new existence, particularly as farmers…in those lands where the laws and religious tolerance permit them to carry on the struggle for existence as noble and responsible subjects of a humane government."

 

Hirsch's first initiative was to create the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA) to resettle Russian Jews in large farming colonies in Argentina. Although the ICA would ultimately settle 35,000-40,000 in Argentine farm colonies, the project suffered from poor leadership in Buenos Aires and difficult farming conditions. In time the number of colonists diminished, leaving their land for city life.

 

In 1882, when the Jewish Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) Movement began creating agricultural settlements in Palestine, Hirsch considered contributing, but backed away when he learned that the French Jewish philanthropist, Baron Edmund de Rothschild (1845-1934), was supporting these colonies by establishing wineries to help them become self sufficient. In a kind of gentleman's agreement, the yishuv (Jewish community in pre-state Israel) would become Rothschild's turf, and the diaspora Hirsch's.

 

In 1891, Hirsch donated $4 million to establish a fund in New York City that would lead to the creation of JAIAS. Over the next three decades, JAIAS would loan more than $7 million (of which $6 million was repaid) to some 10,000 Jews for the purchase of farms, equipment, and seed. While most of the farmers receiving aid purchased farms in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, some were drawn to places as far away as Wyoming, Texas and, Saskatchewan, Canada.

 

JAIAS agents assessed farmland before purchase and paid visits to new farmers. Its Yiddish monthly, The Jewish Farmer, provided information on what seeds to plant and when, how to judge dairy and beef catle, what machinery to purchase, and how to build chicken coops and silos. In addition, JAIAS provided scholarships to the sons of Jewish farmers to attend agricultural colleges.

 

Through the vision of Baron de Hirsch and the operations of JAIAS, which regarded a farm deed as both returning Jews to a "glorious Biblical past" and the "equivalent to a 'Bill of Rights," a substantial number of Jews became part of America's population of farmers in the first decades of the 20thcentury.

 

Though rural life has changed and the challenges facing the Jewish people today are different, Jewish philanthropists continue to play a leading role both internationally and in the U.S. Their impact on Jewish life, like that of Baron de Hirsch, cannot be underestimated.

 

Originally published in Reformed Judaism

Be the first to comment