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Bygone Rural Jewish Settlements Remembered

May 08, 1986|GARY LIBMAN

In the 1880s as Jews crowded into American and European cities with comparative freedom, their Russian brethren suffered a new spate of pogroms.

One European urbanite, Baron Maurice de Hirsch of Germany, especially was concerned with the deterioration of Russian Jewish rights. He offered the Russian government 50 million francs to educate Jews as a first step toward improving their condition.

When czarist leaders rejected the plan, De Hirsch decided that the only way Russian Jews could improve themselves was to move to another land.

Funds to Start Colonies

The baron, who had made millions building railroads, anted up 2 million British pounds for the formation of the Jewish Colonization Assn. and, a decade later, $2.4 million for the Baron de Hirsch Fund in New York.

These organizations carried out the baron's plan to make communal farmers out of Jews, who historically had been barred from land ownership in Russia and had little farming experience.

The plan, resulting partly from the baron's discomfort with the strange-looking and ritualistic Russian Jews and partly from his desire to ennoble them through work with the soil, resulted in the creation of 30 to 40 long-forgotten Jewish agricultural settlements in the United States between 1880 and 1920.

Between 80,000 and 100,000 Jews left their native Russia or Europe, sailed the Atlantic Ocean, journeyed to the American interior and worked the resistant land on settlements financed by De Hirsch and other philanthropists.

At the same time, thousands of immigrant Jews formed farming communities in Israel and other nations.

Through Aug. 15, the Wilshire Boulevard Temple is showing more than 140 photographs of communities established by De Hirsch--communities that died because residents had little farming experience and because economic conditions, including the 1893 depression, made farming difficult in an increasingly industrial United States.

One of the photos at the exhibition is a blown-up recruiting poster from Painted Woods, a De Hirsch-financed colony near Bismarck, N.D. Pictures on the poster show farmers laboring beside log cabins on fecund, tree-lined plots.

A list of founders on the poster includes the grandfather of Pacific Palisades resident Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, Daffy Duck and Jack Benny's old Maxwell automobile.

An exhibition picture from 1899 shows a group of well-dressed men and women on the synagogue steps at the Alliance Colony in southern New Jersey. Nearby, a man works behind a horse and plow.

A third photo records Jewish farmers in overalls loading cabbages onto a truck in Long Island in 1920.

California Settlement

The exhibition contains no pictures of the California colonies, including one started near Porterville by Joseph Nudelman, grandfather of Rabbi Harvey J. Fields of the Wilshire Temple.

Nudelman and thousands of other Russians were initiated into agriculture in foreign lands and remote areas largely because De Hirsch and other Jewish leaders feared that large influxes of Russian and Eastern European Jews would produce anti-Jewish agitation in Western Europe and the United States.

"The Russian and Eastern European Jews came from ghettos," said Uri D. Herscher, author of "Jewish Agricultural Utopias in America, 1880-1910."

"They spoke with thick accents, dressed in traditional, long coats and were not Westernized," said Herscher, a professor of history at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

"To protect themselves, the leaders sought to divert the immigrants from the cities," Herscher said.

Yet De Hirsch had a "genuine concern for Jewish survival" and "a tremendous sense of what needed to be done," Herscher said.

"De Hirsch thought that to place the Jews in an agrarian setting would make them more noble. . . . As a reaction to industrialism, there's a romantic notion that develops about working the land. It's cleansing. It's humanizing. In fact when the Jews went to Palestine, it was that philosophy that created the kibbutz movement," Herscher said.

Although many Jews labored to prove that they could farm like other ethnic groups, most communities failed because of inexperience.

Florence Verger of Westwood remembers going to school in a horse and buggy ("because there was no public transportation and the school was too far to walk") at the 40-acre farm on Clarion Colony, which began in 1911 in central Utah.

Her Russian father, Nathan Brown, who arrived at the colony in 1912, worked 16 hours a day eking out a living from the rocky, semi-desert land.

"Most of the people were city people," she said. "There were jewelers, tailors--people who had had little shops. Although they were hoping for a better future, they didn't have the makings of farmers and the kind of patience or strength that it took to farm from scratch."

Winters and Water

After contending with hard winters and an inadequate water supply, the colonists abandoned their land and boarded a train for California in 1915.

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