Using a No.2 pencil, please fill in the bubble below next to the noun that does not go with the others:
O New Joy-zee
WRONG!!! On Sunday, April 18, two-dozen BethAm- Israelites wandered through the farmlands of southern New Jersey toward Vineland, the Promised Land.
THE ANSWER: Yes, yes Virginia – I mean, New Jersey – there really is a Synagogue – in fact quite a few synagogues, surrounded once upon a time by jumping Jersey-Jewish chicken farmers. Betty Greene served as our Moses, our tour-organizer extraordinaire, schlepping us from hither cornfield to yon flat horizon.
THE BACK STORY & STOP #1: Russian Jews fled to America to escape the pogroms after the assassination, in 1881, of Tsar Alexander II. Some rejected the steaming tenements of the Lower East Side of New York for the open-air and self-sufficiency of agricultural life. In 1882 twenty-five settlers responded to the offer by the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society to build Alliance Colony in Norma, New Jersey. By that summer, each of 70 former shopkeeper families received 15 acres of would-be farmland which they first had to clear of forests. Within one month, they had planted corn. The Aid Society erected large buildings for several families each with provisioned common kitchens until they could build their own homes. Within 20 years, this agricultural colony, starting with no knowledge of agriculture in sandy south-Jersey soil, was the thriving home to 512 Jews who also winter-worked manufacturing cigars and shirts. Alliance also became the training ground for transient immigrants who later settled and chicken-farmed surrounding settlements. By 1900, Alliance touted two synagogues, a brotherhood, a library, a Benevolent Society, a Lodge, a cemetery, and a Zionist Association. So, what else is new?
Let’s see – how many synagogues does it take to cover the disagreements of a community of Jews ?
SECOND stop in the desert: Garton Road Shul rising up from the flatlands of Deerfield Township like a skinny white one-room school house, 18’ feet wide, with a car-stopping huge blue Magen David painted above the door. A short distance, but a thickly-wooded hike from Norma, this second colony began collecting money for its shul in 1890 by successfully soliciting a loan from owners of the NY Yiddish Theater which came periodically to entertain the settlers.
The Garton Road community was Sephardic, and ardently Zionist, and after learning in 1897 of the first Zionist Congress, this poor-to-do community’s women formed “The Sisters of Zion” to discuss the world-wide plight of Jews and raise funds for the Zionist cause. With no rabbi, this 150 member community strictly observed Shabbat and brought a teacher from Europe for their children’s Jewish education.
Entrepreneurs to the core, they sent the children out to the barn and rented their rooms in summer to “Pleasurenikers” escaping New York’s heat and humidity, and one among them eventually built a landmark 150-person hotel with a kosher dining room.
Helen and Morris Ostroff, who live next door and lovingly care for the building, spoke to us inside this synagogue, so small that it was hard for just our group to fit. Their Ostroff forbearers had come in the 1890s from Kiev, penniless, but carrying their brass candlesticks, Tefilin and prayer books.
MANNA appeared for us at stop #3, Temple Beth Hillel – Beth Abraham, in Carmel, where a turn-of- the-20th-century once orthodox Beth Hillel and the once conservative Beth Abraham from Bridgeton joined pews two years ago as a Reform congregation for the sake of survival. The original settlers of this Carmel chicken-farming colony, some from Romania and some from Russia, could not even lie together in death and so built side-by-side cemeteries, which now, like the synagogues, are finally joined. Just to clue you in on how rough the original undertaking was in the 1880s, the land the Jews finally cleared for chicken-farming was first offered to the Amish who tried and failed!
REFRESHED from our fressing, we energetically cycled our car engines east to #4, the big BIV – Beth Israel, a conservative congregation in Vineland well known as the Bar Mitzvah shul of Joe Finkelstein, who once again ascended the bima, this time to ask his father Sol to tell a few stories.
Sol told about coming home to his $35 a-month walkup in New York to tell his wife Goldie, that he had bought a parcel of land in Vineland where they could feel free, where they didn’t have to speak English, where nobody would tell them what to do or what not to do. He and his brothers bought 10 acres with little houses and borrowed money to buy chicken coops. “It was like a kibbutz,” he said; “soon 400 Holocaust refugees came to Vineland to be chicken farmers!” Joe inserted: “My family was six survivors growing up in three bungalows raising seven cousins always eating in each others houses.” Everyone had an accent. Everyone had a tattoo.
In this Egg Capital of the United States, Sol helped establish the JPFA, the Jewish Poultry Farmers Association, which met weekly on the Alliance beach in Norma where the men played cards and mothers watched their kids play in the sand. He became a political power and got appointed city planner. He arranged for the first Yom HaShoah service, and started a theater with actors from Vilna playing in Yiddish. The kids learned English and grew up there, 80% of them becoming professionals, and almost all moving away.
Sol said life as a chicken farmer was not a great science. You bought baby chicks, you built a fence, you gave heat and water and food. You got up early to feed the chickens, then fed yourself, collected the eggs, washed and graded and packed and sold them. Goldie, he said, was Secretary of Transportation, taking the children 8 miles to school and back. Sol became the first on the eastern seaboard to package frozen eggs for Manischewitz. He recounted the story of his making his rounds to bakeries and restaurants to whom he sold these frozen eggs, including a bakery in Bethlehem, PA where he got to talking to the owner about his having been liberated from Mauthausen in 1945. The baker told Sol to wait a minute. He made a phone call. And then the baker’s son came into the bakery. A U.S. Army officer in Patton’s 11th Armored Division, the son had liberated Sol from Mauthausen.
LAST STOP – #5, back to ancient history. Wandering to Woodbine, where the NJ Legislature had amended its laws in the 1880s to permit Jews to work on Sundays, our Beth Am Israelites of 2010 stepped into a large red brick synagogue consecrated in 1896 and now on the National Historic Registry.
Its members came originally from the 5300 acres in Cape May County that the Baron de Hirsch Fund purchased as an “agricultural experiment,” for which it issued mortgages for homes and barns to encourage Jewish immigrants first to get out of the way of the Russian pogroms and then to “return to the soil.” Each settler family was given a house, a horse and some chickens. The Fund also built the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural School, the first agricultural secondary school in the United States.
The first public building however was a bath house, not to serve as a mikveh, but because the summer was unbearably hot!
Unlike other rural Jewish communities, Woodbine thrived on a unique harmony of Jews: Poles, Ukrainians, Italians, everybody. It survived as an active congregation until the 1970s, and now houses a museum which teaches the timeline of Jewish rural settlement in New Jersey and promotes Holocaust education.
According to the New York Times of June 24, 1984, “In 1903, special legislation created Woodbine Borough, resulting in Jewish self-rule (the first anywhere in the world since the destruction, 1,833 years ago, of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.)…. Israel as a unit of Jewish self-rule was preceded by Woodbine, N.J.”
SO. WHO KNEW? In the middle of the Jersey Pine Barrens, Jewish Russian immigrants arrived in the 1880s to build synagogues and lives as Jewish chicken-farmers. Immigrants fleeing pre-War Germany and then refugees from post-Holocaust Europe, revived these communities. But only briefly.
OK: NEXT JEWISH IQ QUESTION: Using a No. 2 pencil, fill in the bubble below next to the noun that does not fit with the others:
O Eastern State Penitentiary
ANSWER: See next issue of Kol Ha’Am!