From the J-Vault: Immigrant Jewish American Farmers

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The year is 1902, and Jewish organizations are welcoming poor Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and teaching them a new way of life -- a new way to think about being Jewish, a new vocation, and a new relationship to the land. They are teaching these new immigrants to be farmers.

This description, however, has nothing to do with the kibbutz movement, or with the Yishuv (the pre-1948 Zionist Jewish community in the land of Israel). The land to which these Ashkenazic-refugees-turned-yeoman-farmers had immigrated was America.

This week from the J-Vault: Agriculture, A Most Effective Means to Aid Jewish Poor (1902)

"Whenever one of the Jewish poor drifts into a smaller community," writes Rabbi A.R. Levy, "and there applies for help to the Jewish residents, he is generally shipped to the nearest large city where, it is assumed, he must find work in the sweatshop or in the factory." This is undesirable, Levy explains, not only because the lifestyle is inherently unpleasant, but because the tightly packed "ghetto" life in urban centers mixes poorly with the character traits Levy perceives in Eastern European Jewish immigrants. (Levy's condescension to his immigrant kin is sadly characteristic of the attitude of many early 20th century Jews born in America.)

The better solution, according to Levy, is the one advocated by the Jewish Agriculturists' Aid Society of America.

Farm life works wonders, Levy reports:

A most marked and happy change in the character of our Jewish farmers ds the self-reliance they manifest... Our farmers go about their work with an air of self-reliance that is cheering and encouraging. It has been said that no work within the scope of human activity makes for the better in all that is good in human character as does tilling the soil. Our farmers are a telling testimony to the truth of this assertion.

Farm life also means isolation from other Jews, and from Jewish communities. Levy acknowledges this, but claims that such isolation has "proven to be of no damaging effect as far as the religious life and habit of the Jew is concerned." Indeed, being disconnected from traditional religious observance seems, to Levy, to be a positive rather than a negative factor:

No one will fail to recognize the virtue of the religious practices and habits of the Russian Jews as they are maintained by him in Russia. They are undeniably overdone and exaggerated, but they are eminently helpful to the life as it must be lived by him in Russia. For, where man's activity in the sphere of usefulness is so limited that he is forced to exist in idleness, it is the height of wisdom that he betakes himself to the field of religious enjoyment. Long and many prayers, many and extravagant ceremonies that require much time and attention are, under stated conditions, a true blessing... However, to follow up such ceremonies where divine and human agencies offer an opportunity for honest and useful toil, would lie working against the interest of religion and not for it... [T]he life of usefulness on the farm will wean him of, and bring him away from many a superfluous ceremony and obsolete observance, the practice of which is more in accord with superstition than with religion.

Read the whole article here.

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Jewish Farming School, Then and Now

I recently had the most wonderful visit to the Adamah program at the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center, connected to their Sukkahfest celebration. The whole thing was lovely and very impressive. Like many Jews, my background could hardly be less rural, and learning how to milk goats and pick vegetables was probably inordinately exciting.

Participants in the Adamah program spend three months learning and doing farming, environmentalism, sustainability, and Judaism. The program has been increasing in success and popularity and now the JTA reports on a new movement towards Urban Jewish farming - Jewish Farm School Movement Moves West:

Like the original Adamah, the Berkeley program will be a full immersion experience. But because it is situated in a city with a significant Jewish population, it also will serve as a Jewish educational center, playing host to visiting school groups and holiday festivities. Berman anticipates 10,000 annual farm visitors by the project’s third year...

A major criticism of the rural Jewish farm programs like the original Adamah, Passow says, is the lack of direct connection to social justice work. The new Berkeley project will give its young participants the agricultural training they desire while serving the local community -- “a great merger of those two pieces,” he said.

For me, one of the most interesting things about the 'Jewish Farm School Movement' is its history. Nowadays, Adamah fellows participate in a selective application process and pay a stipend for the privilege of participating in the program, but once upon a time, major Jewish organization were struggling with how to incentivize Jews to, for heaven's sake, move out of the cities and learn some farming skills.

On the occasion of the 4th National Conference of Jewish Charities, in 1907 , A.R. Levy admitted, "I am tempted to say that agriculture is the panacea for all the ills of the American ghetto." The idea was that the problems American Jewish poverty and the over-crowding of immigrants in cities like New York could be solved by a movement of Jews (poor, immigrant, and orphan Jews, generally) to the land.

It wasn't only an economic question, either. In Agricultural Education for Jews in the United States, H.L. Sabsovich argued that that move was essential for Jews' full participation and acceptance in American civil society

For the general Jewish welfare we must certainly have a farming population, as we will stand better with our neighbors when we are able to point out that the agricultural industries are taken up by us as a life vocation. From an economic standpoint, farming, as a new Jewish trade, is not only advisable, but is an absolute necessity. None of the present schools meet fully the Jewish needs. In order to enable the Americanized and the immigrant Jewish lads to take advantage of the educational facilities offered by the State colleges and secondary agricultural schools, preparatory Jewish agricultural schools should be established where they can learn that which the farmers' boys learn at home, namely, the farm operations and farm life.

(I doubt he could have begun to imagine Adamah  - which is definitely not limited to 'lads' - as it exists now, and I wonder what he would think!)

You can also read about one early precursor to Adamah - a joint project of the Industrial Removal Office and the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society - which brought "five settlers, with their wives and twenty-three children" to Arpin, Wisconsin, and set them up with homes and cows. At least according to A.W. Rich, author of the report, founder of the town of Arpin, and major player behind the project, it was ambling along very smoothly - despite the fact that three of the original settlers had to be removed because they started "becoming a disturbing element of the community after having been denied certain extravagant requests." (Requests for what??) You can read more about that project on the Arpin (current population 337) Wikipedia page.

The current Jewish farming movement has interesting continuities (Jewish continuity and prosperity concerns, the role of Jews in the broader social enviornment) and discontinuities (the new focus on environmentalism, an orientation towards the more elite and educated segments of the Jewish community) and I for one look forward to where we'll be in another hundred years.

In the mean time, one more discontinuity - blogging has come to Jewish farming. Check out the Adamah group blog for updates directly from the field. 

If you want to try out Jewish farming for yourself, maybe you can make it to one of the no-fee Adamah-run farm visit days - the Colors of Autum Farm Visit will be Sunday October 17th.