The pogrom-inspired Jewish exodus from late 19th-century czarist Russia is well known. Less well known is what many Russian-Jewish émigrés wound up doing after settling in South Jersey.
That’s why Stockton University, in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Cumberland, Gloucester & Salem Counties, has opened the artifact- and document-filled Alliance Heritage Center to preserve, for scholars and community members alike, the history and memory of Alliance Colony, the first successful Jewish farming colony in the United States.
From the early 1880s through the 1920s, Alliance (near Vineland, New Jersey) had all the things needed for Jewish life — and death: schools, synagogues, a library and a cemetery that exists today. But the road to viability was hardly smoothly paved for Alliance settlers, said Stockton Professor Thomas Kinsella, the center’s first director.
“Most of the initial families came over with virtually no farming experience,” said Kinsella, explaining that in Russia, at that time, there would have been only limited circumstances in which Jews would’ve been allowed to farm, due to restrictions on Jewish land ownership.
“They were merchants, professional class, there were some artisans (like) woodworkers and builders,” he said. “So it was very difficult the first few years. But they persevered, and … by the 1890s and the early aughts of the 20th century, they’re making reasonably good livings.”
The Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society of New York City initially put the funds together to buy the 1,150 acres that would become Alliance Colony. Then, as now, the value of any real estate transaction can be boiled down to three words: location, location, location.
“They had the very positive thing of being near a railroad station that took their fresh produce quickly to Philadelphia and New York, so they were in a really good market for what they were doing — growing their berries, their fruit, their sweet potatoes,” Kinsella said.
Alliance prospered and, for a time, developed a more diversified economy, building a cigar factory, a canning factory and a sewing factory in the Brotmanville section of Alliance, where the physical structure of the Brotmanville synagogue still stands. The influx of industry allowed Alliance farmers to earn a living during the winter.
Soon, other Jewish farming communities sprouted up nearby, most notably Carmel, Rosenhayn and Woodbine, the largest of the colonies, which grew to 2,000 people and even became its own municipality in 1903.
So, where have all the Jewish farmers gone?
“The children of the original settlers who wanted to keep farming couldn’t find land — or land close by that they could afford,” Kinsella said. “So some just ended up going to Philadelphia or Camden because they were priced out of the land.”
But the main reason is because farming was never really seen as an end for most of Alliance’s families; it was a means to better opportunities for their children.
“Many of the families really enjoyed the farm,” Kinsella said, “but the farming wasn’t the end for all of them; it was just the beginning.”
Jay Greenblatt has lived the kind of life for which his grandparents, Alliance residents, sacrificed. And for that, he cannot let his family’s story fade into oblivion.
At 82, he’s still practicing law in Vineland, and is on the board of the Federation partnering with Stockton and the president of The Alliance Colony Foundation. His father became a Bar Mitzvah at the Brotmanville synagogue, or as Greenblatt calls it, “the small shul with the wooden front doors held shut by a small length of rope.”
Greenblatt organized the foundation 100 years after the colony was founded with the hope of “keeping the story alive.” He had just finished Alex Haley’s Roots. He was resolute. He wouldn’t let Alliance die.
That was 1982.
In the intervening years, interest waned. Funding waned. Greenblatt’s dream was dying like berry crops at first frost.
Then, some good luck: the convergence of social media and affordable DNA and genealogy kits led to resurgent interest. Add in a fortuitous encounter between Greenblatt and Kinsella and Alliance is back.
The newly announced Alliance Heritage Center, which has actually been up and running and staffed since the beginning of Stockton’s academic year, will be housed in the School of Arts and Humanities on Stockton’s main campus in Galloway, New Jersey.
The Brotmanville synagogue isn’t entirely where it used to be either. After a failed attempt to move the physical structure to the grounds of the Alliance cemetery, Greenblatt sold the property to a Baptist church, removing the pulpit, ark and bimah in the process and installing them in the Alliance cemetery’s chapel, where they remain today.
Greenblatt considers these nominal concessions.
“Just when I feared that the flame was about to die and that no one would be left to respond to the requests for literature, and to maintain the documents and articles collected over the years, a major teaching institution … creates a virtual library/museum on the internet, a curriculum and a permanent repository and resource center to keep alive and continue telling the story of Alliance.”