Alliance Heritage Center Gets $100K Grant to Preserve Farming Community History

Gates of Alliance Cemetery. Photo courtesy of Alliance Heritage Center

Stephen Silver

In 1882, a group of 40-80 Jewish families who fled persecution in Eastern Europe and Russia established the Alliance Colony in Salem County, New Jersey, and it became the first successful Jewish farming community in the United States.

A full 137 years later, in 2019, the Alliance Heritage Center, which was meant to keep the memory alive of the Alliance Colony, was established at Stockton University under the leadership of Thomas Kinsella, a professor of literature there for more than 30 years.

In addition to his work as a professor, Kinsella was running a local center that studies South Jersey cultural history. Through that, he met Jay Greenblatt, a retired attorney who was interested in colony history. On a visit to the Colony Cemetery in the area — which had a museum dedicated to the colony that hadn’t been updated in years — Greenblatt asked if the university might be interested in taking it over.

While Kinsella wasn’t sure how feasible that was, he was interested in establishing a digital museum.

“We started to do that, with community interest, and help with donations of material and some funding; in 2019, we kicked off, officially, the Alliance Heritage Center,” Kinsella said. “Our goal is to preserve as much history as we can, from descendants and friends of the early colonists but also get to tell its stories.”

Museum exhibit. Photo courtesy of Alliance Heritage Center

Now, the center has gotten a big boost for its work with the receipt of a $100,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The center’s work has mostly, until now, been digital, including on the Alliance Heritage Center website. But the plan is that the grant money will allow it to create physical exhibits.

“Because of the Mellon Foundation funding, we’re gonna be able to go in and actually rework the physical exhibition in the chapel, which was a thing Jay Greenblatt hoped we would do five years ago,” Kinsella said.

Patricia Chappine, who is the alliance’s assistant director and a Rudnick Fellow at the Heritage Center, came aboard in the spring of 2022 and immediately sought grant funding. An earlier grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission helped get the digital museum going, and she also was instrumental in the Mellon grant application.

After the foundation expressed initial interest, it went through the process and was awarded the grant.

“The grant is going to allow us to rework the exhibition materials on site on the chapel but also in a traveling exhibit that we’ll build,” Kinsella said.

The grant will allow for programming, a lecture series and a lunch-and-learn short course series over two years. The traveling exhibit, per the press release, will go to such places as educational and Jewish institutions in South Jersey as well as the Philadelphia area.

“As important as reaching out to the community is, we’ll be able to enlist the help of Stockton University graduates and undergraduates, who are going to help us every step of the way,” he added.

“They’re going to help us develop the programming, staff the programming, they’re going to help us develop materials for the exhibition and do oral histories. They’ll just be many intelligent, hard-working hands that we need, to move us down the road, and to make the Alliance story more robust and better well-known.”

Sara Brown, a recent alum of Stockton, will join as a Greenblatt Fellow, to be assisted this fall by five undergraduate interns/fellows.

The colony story
The colony’s establishment followed “the incoming influx of Russian Jews trying to get out of Russia during a bad season of pogroms that were instigated by the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881,” Kinsella said. “The life of a Jew in Russia wasn’t a particularly happy life, at any time, but when the pogroms flared up — and that was a bad time — they could be murderous. So, the people who could leave did.”

Children pose in their May Day outfits in 1933.
Photo courtesy of Alliance Heritage Center

Philanthropists in Western Europe, where many of those Jews stopped first, helped fund trips to North America. Other philanthropists, in New York, helped set up a series of Jewish farming colonies. Alliance, per Kinsella, was the one that “stuck.”

Sweet potatoes and strawberries were the major crops, as well as other berries, and much of the product ended up in the New York and Philadelphia markets. The colony eventually morphed into villages, including Norma, Alliance and Brotmanville, about 30 miles west of Stockton.

“It is not a Jewish enclave any longer,” Kinsella said of that area of New Jersey, although the Alliance Cemetery and synagogue remain. “I would argue 1882 into the ‘40s, it was still retaining its original character,” he added.

How did Kinsella, a literature professor, get involved with something so far afield from his main area of expertise?

He said that he always had an interest, during his earlier graduate studies, in special collections and archives. And as director of the South Jersey Culture & History Center, he developed an interest in area history.

“It took me a while to learn about the alliance, but the alliance, of course, was in our sphere of interest. So that is just a more focused look at something that I’ve been doing for more than a decade.”

While Kinsella is not Jewish, he is “deeply interested in this history,” he said. “It’s a fabulous community to work with, to find the individual families, and perhaps to meet a grandson or granddaughter … it’s like history comes to life in lots of ways.”

“The Alliance teaches a story,” Jay Greenblatt said in a video from 2019 that was posted on the Stockton University YouTube channel. “It is a slice of history. It’s not just the Jewish history of immigration to this country, it’s American immigration to this country.” T

Stephen Silver is a Broomall-based freelance writer.


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