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From Sea to Shining Sea: Back to the Soil

Nineteenth-century America looked upon the independent farmer as the quintessential American, the backbone of the nation. For Jewish immigrants to remain dwellers in self-created ghettos in the Northeast metropolises was not in the interest of America, the Jewish community, or the immigrant himself. in the middle of the century, back-to-the-soil movements were already stirring in Russia and being proposed for immigrant Jews in the United States.

In the Library's collection is a four-page circular in Hebrew and Polish issued by the Warsaw rabbinate at the end of 1841 in support of such endeavors in the Czarist empire. Little more than a compilation of Talmudic statements favoring agricultural pursuits, it was issued to counter widely disseminated assertions that the rabbis forbade Jews to "labor in fields and orchards outside the borders of the Holy Land." The rabbis feared that such views might be upsetting to the Czarist government, which was then favoring Jewish return to the soil. The tenor of their appeal can be gauged from the following excerpt from the compilation:

Rabbi Eleazer said, "He who does not own land is not fully a person." The rabbis of the Talmud were all persons of stature who could have chosen any vocation, yet they concluded that the best pursuit of man is to work the land.... this was never an undesirable occupation; we were forced to leave it. But now that God has privileged us to live under the sovereignty of a virtuous czar and his administrators who, solicitous for our welfare, are encouraging us to turn to agriculture, so that we may support our families in prosperity and honor, it is incumbent on those who are able to take advantage of the opportunity.

In the middle of the century plans were promulgated for Jewish agricultural colonies in America. In the first issue of The Occident, April 1843, Julius Stern of Philadelphia proposed the establishment of a Jewish colony in one of the Northwestern territories, where Jews might devote themselves to "agriculture and the breeding of cattle, which occupations are the best props of every state." Stern hoped the colony might eventually grow to become a Jewish state within the United States, "for never will [our holy religion] be able to appear in all its dignity, glory and greatness, so long as our people live dispersed among the followers of other creeds."

The most interesting and comprehensive proposal came from Simeon Berman (1818-1884) who, before he went to America in 1852, founded an agricultural settlement society in his native Cracow. In New York, Cincinnati and St. Louis he pursued his life's passion, the colonization of Jews on the soil. His infectious enthusiasm and vision won adherents to his cause, but he lacked the organizational skills to turn plans into reality. A dozen years after his first attempt to organize an agricultural society, he still had not succeeded. In 1865, in St. Louis, Berman published Constitution und Plan zur Grundung eines Judischen Agrikultur-Vereins (Constitution and Plan for the Founding of a Jewish Agricultural Society), in which he discusses how the Society is to be organized, how the settlers need to work together to provide for their present needs and plan their future well-being.

The purpose of the Society was to direct the Jews' attention toward farming and to provide the indigent among them with an opportunity to find independence on the land through cooperative efforts and with minimal expenses. "Ten thousand acres are to be bought in one of the states, fertile land in a good climate," he writes. "Cities are to be laid out, ten lots to an acre." Nor will the Jewish cultural and spiritual needs be neglected. "The staff of the colony's school should consist of two Hebrew, two German and two English teachers, with a rabbi as Superintendent."

What remains of the plan is an exceedingly rare German pamphlet recently acquired by the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Unsuccessful in the New World, in 1870 Berman left for Palestine, where he spent the last fourteen years of his life in colonization efforts. With the aid of the American consul, Berman persuaded the Ottoman government to grant his request to be allowed to purchase land. He settled in Tiberias and founded the Holy Land Settlement Society for the establishment of a cooperative colony on Lake Kinneret, and lived to see the establishment of the first Jewish settlements in the Galilee and in Judea.

Colonies were established in America as well. Members of the Am Olam (Eternal People) movement for cooperative living on the land went to the New World, and in spring 1882 thirty-two families founded a colony at Sicily Island, Louisiana, which a Mississippi flood wiped out. A dozen regrouped to found the colony Crimea in South Dakota in the fall of the same year, and Bethlehem of Judea was soon established nearby, but heavy debt and lack of farming experience took their toll. Both had to be liquidated three years later. The same fate overtook New Odessa, near Portland, Oregon. Report of Mr. Julius Schwartz on the Colony of Russian Refugees at Cotopaxi, Colorado, established by The Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society of the United States, New York, 1882, tells of the founding of an immigrant colony.

The tyrannical illiberality of the Russian Government overflowed the free shores of our country with suffering refugees. The desire to colonize these refugees, to make them farmers ... to resave them from the ... chains of poverty and desolation ... speedily became a sentiment among our thinking co-religionists ... It was decided that Government land be taken up in Colorado, and an experimental colony be founded ... Proper persons, amongst them some trained farmers, were selected and on the third of May, the Colony consisting of thirteen families, left for Cotopaxi ... the headquarters of a rich mining district ... Opposite on the Arkansas River ... land covered with fresh green grass forms the first link in the chain of farms that are under the cultivation of the expatriated Russian Jews.

The land proved arid, impossible to cultivate without irrigation, and the colony did not last three years.

Julius Schwarz.
Report of Mr. Julius Schwarz on the Colony of Russian Refugees at Cotopaxi, Colorado . . . 1882.
New York: Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society of the United States, [1882].
General Collections

Sources:Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).