Woodbine – first Jewish town in U.S.

5641/1881 was a catastrophic year for Russian Jewry. During this year, Czar Alexander II, who had been fighting anti-Semitic discrimination, was finally murdered after several previous unsuccessful assassination attempts. His son, Alexander III, began persecuting the Jews violently, with the goal of forcing them to convert or leave the country within five years, and by 5674/1914, two million Jews had fled, mostly to the USA.

BARON DE HIRSCH’S STRANGE PHILANTHROPY

In 5651/1891, Baron Maurice de Hirsch (5591/1831-5656/1896), who had amassed a fortune of about $100 million, created a fund worth $2.4 million (about $50 million, in modern terms) to help these Jewish immigrants. He devoted himself to philanthropy even more after the passing of his son, Lucien, in 5647/1887, declaring, “My son I have lost but not my heirs. Humanity is my heir.”

Yet there was one cause to which he refused to give a penny – Zionism. He regarded it as an impossible fantasy.

Unfortunately, his idea of helping Jews was to provide them with secular education and to integrate them into their places of residence. To this end, he donated vast sums to the infamous Alliance Israelite Universelle schools, which taught Western culture to those in Sephardic communities, and helped set up secular Jewish schools in Galicia and Bukov- ina. For American Jews, his goal was “Americanization ” Jews should join the American melting pot and work at American occupations, such as farming, instead of their traditional occupations of sewing and peddling.

De Hirsch’s philanthropy was a departure from the Jewish concept of tzedakah and chessed. In a letter, published in the “North American Review” in 5651/1891, he characterized the latter as an evil, stating:

“I contend most decidedly against the old system of alms-giving, which only makes so many more beggars; and I consider it the greatest challenge in philanthropy: to make human beings who are capable of work, out of individuals who otherwise must become paupers, and in this way, to create useful members of society.”

Why did this freethinker want to help the Jewish people?

“In relieving human suffering, I never ask whether the cry of necessity comes from a being who belongs to my own faith or not,” he wrote to a newspaper at the time, “but what is more natural than that I should find my highest purpose in bringing to the followers of Judaism, who have been oppressed for a thousand years, who are starving in misery, the possibility of physical and moral regeneration? That I should try to free them, to build them up into capable citizens, and thus furnish humanity with much new and valuable material?

“For it does not matter how low the disciples of the faith may have fallen, nor how crushed they may seem to be; it only needs a single breath of freedom to bring honor and stimulus to the country to which they belong. The Middle Ages and modern times alike prove this.”

Originally, de Hirsch thought of utilizing his funds in a grandiose scheme to settle a million Jews in South America.

“In considering this plan, I naturally thought of the United States, where the liberal constitution is a guarantee of happy development for the followers of all religious faiths,” he wrote. “Yet I was obliged to confess that to increase, to any great extent, the already enormous number of Jews in the United States would be of advantage neither to the country itself nor to the exiled Jews; for it is my firm conviction that this new settlement should be scattered throughout different lands and spread over a large space, so that there shall be no opportunity for social or religious rupture. I made a study, therefore, of different countries and, after careful examination, I have become convinced that the Argentine Republic, Canada and Australia, above all others, offer the surest guarantee for the accomplishment of the plan. I expect to begin with the Argentine Republic, and arrangements for the purchase of certain lands for the settlement are now being made.”

De Hirsch set up a “Jewish Colonization Association” to settle Jews chiefly in Argentina and Brazil. This is generally regarded as a dismal failure, as a historian from those times reports:

“Before long, Baron de Hirsch’s dream of transplanting millions of people, with millions of money, proved an utter failure. When, after long preparations, the selected Jewish colonists were, at last, dispatched to Argentina, it was found that the original figure of 25,000 emigrants calculated for the first year had shrunk to about 2,500. Altogether, during the first three years, from (5652) 1892 to (5654) 1894, the Argentinean emigration absorbed some six thousand people. Half of these remained in the capital of the Republic, in Buenos Aires, while the other half managed to settle in the colonies, after enduring all the hardships connected with an agricultural colonization in a new land and under new climatic conditions.

“A few years later, it was commonly realized that the mountain had given birth to a mouse. Instead of a million Jews, as originally planned, the Jewish Colonization Association succeeded in transplanting during the first decade only 10,000 Jews, who were distributed over six Argentinean colonies.”

THE CREATION OF WOODBINE

The New York-based Baron de Hirsch Fund, created to help US Jews, was more successful. It helped farmers, taught youngsters trades and set up farming communities.

In 5651/1891, the Fund brought 5,300 acres of land, half an hour’s drive from Atlantic City, in Woodbine, New Jersey, for $37,500. Twelve farmers were sent to clear the land and, by the end of the year, the region was inhabited by 760 Jews. In the beginning, conditions were harsh. Shortly afterwards, two settlers, William Sigall and Isaac Grim- sky, showed a visiting reporter a small shanty, about the size of a hen’s roost, and remarked, “We and our families lived in that place, sixteen in all, for five months while we were clearing the trees.”

After an agricultural squabble, during which the Fund kicked out several troublemakers, things picked up again and, by 5656/1896, the community had an electric plant, clothing factory, public school, agricultural school (the first secondary agriculture school in America) and a shul. A third of the funds to construct this shul came from the locals, who went out at nights after work, to dig up clay, make bricks and cut wood for its walls and roof. They built the shul with their own hands. This was known as the “Big Shul.”

When the last mortgage payment of the shul was paid up, twenty-five years later, the Directors of the shul wrote to the Fund: “As the years go by and, one by one, our pioneers leave us to go to their eternal resting places, we are nevertheless gratified to note that our labor has not been in vain, that the new generation has not forgotten the ways of Israel, but rather, brought up by us as Jews, they have imbibed the spirit of Judaism and are lending their aid, both materially and otherwise, towards the preservation of the teachings of our ancient race and religion.”

The town eventually had four shuls, including the Tifereth Yisroel “Little Shul” (previously a Baptist church) that was frequented by factory workers.

A FAILURE OVERALL

Despite its modest success, the Woodbine project was no near as successful as had been envisioned and it put an end to the Fund’s dream of creating agricultural settlements for Russian Jews on an extended scale. As the trustee, Judge Isaacs, stated, “I do not think we should repeat the experiment of sending a certain number of families, whose capacity and history are unknown, to an uncleared tract of land, and to be held responsible by them, or in our own minds, for their failure to become successful farmers.”

By 5662/1902, Woodbine had 1,400 inhabitants, 52 farms and 7 factories. The following year, history was made when Woodbine became, as one reporter put it, “the first [Jewish] self-governed community since the fall of Jerusalem.” Although that is a slight overstatement, it was America’s first autonomous Jewish community and this news was trumpeted by almost every paper in the States. A unique accomplishment of Woodbine was its persuasion of the New Jersey legislature to allow the community’s Jews to close their businesses on Shabbos instead of Sunday. The settlers had previously demanded that the factories be closed on Shabbos back in the 5650s/1890s.

When a reporter, Jacob Riis, visited the settlement, in 5669/1909, he found it an infinitely better place than the East Side:

“The hopeless disorder, the discouragement of the slum, was nowhere. The children were stout and rosy… In the factories, I had noticed the absence of the sullen looks that used to oppress me in the slums and sweatshops.

“A woman with a strong face and shrewd brown eyes, rose from an onion patch she had been weeding to open the gate. ‘Come in,’ she said, ‘and be welcome.’

“Mrs. Breslow and her husband left home for a cause. He was a carpenter. For nine months, they starved in a Forsythe Street apartment, paying $15 a month for three rooms. This cottage is their own. They have paid for it ($800) since they came out with the first settlers. This lot was given to them but they bought the adjoining one to raise truck (vegetables) on.

“‘G-tt sei dank,’ says the woman, with shining eyes. ‘We owe nothing and pay no rent and are never hungry anymore.’”

In the 5680s/1920s, the town began losing its Jewish character as the gentile population swelled and more churches were built. This did not bother the Fund trustees since they had never wanted Woodbine to be exclusively Jewish. By 5680/1920, the town had 825 Jews and 584 gentiles and, in 5705/1945, there were only 545 Jews out of a population of 1,792.

In 5749/1979, Woodbine’s development was permanently restricted when it was declared one of seven towns of the 1.1 million-acre Pineland National Reserve. In 5763/2003, the population counted only 72 Jews out of a population of 2,716. The old shul is registered as a national historic site, described as “the largest synagogue still standing built entirely by its congregation.” Its basement houses the Sam Azeez Museum of Woodbine Heritage that tells the story of the town’s forgotten beginnings.

(Source: Sam Azeez Museum of Woodbine Heritage, “History of the Baron de Hirsch Fund” by Samuel Joseph, Ph.D., Jewish Publication Society, 1935)

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