By Cheryl Kempler
Escaping pogroms, denied their civil rights and starving from famine in the late 19th century, millions of Russian and Romanian Jews immigrated to America, only to endure more suffering in the squalid tenements and sweatshops of New York City. Searching for alternatives to the situation, B’nai B’rith embraced agriculture as an alternative to the bleak life of overcrowded urban ghettos.
To further what became known as the Jewish Agricultural Movement, B’nai B’rith developed relationships with several educational institutions that specialized in preparing young Jews for careers in farming and related fields. Among these were the Ahlem Agricultural School, in Germany, and the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural and Industrial School, in Woodbine, Cape May County, New Jersey.
Supporters believed that the problems of European and American Jews could be solved by relocating them to self-sustaining agrarian communities, which they would create and cultivate. Escaping poverty-wage jobs as peddlers and factory workers, Jews would live off the land, applying the latest scientific and practical methods to growing food and raising animals. Men, women and children would thrive in an environment where they would be empowered by their autonomy, having little need to interact with a hostile society. One of the movement’s other goals was the restoration of spirituality—debased as a result of exposure to the urban environment—that would alter priorities and inculcate the need to selflessly serve the needs of the community.
Financier and industrialist Baron Maurice de Hirsch was one of the colonization movement’s most powerful advocates and donated countless millions to Jewish and immigrant causes. His generosity extended to several American and European B’nai B’rith institutions. In 1891, his foundation, the de Hirsch Fund, put up the money to purchase 5,300 acres of untrammeled land 56 miles from Philadelphia in Woodbine. Unique among the de Hirsch settlements, the Woodbine Colony was destined to become what Circle Magazine in 1907 called “the first self-governed Jewish community since the fall of Jerusalem.” The pioneers who built the first houses and prepared the ground for crops were off to a challenging start; further tribulations down the road ended in the expulsion of financially unstable families. Better times came. By 1900, Woodbine was home to 750 Jews and 123 Christians, 52 productive farms, four factories, a few stores and a synagogue.
Founded in 1893 and run by the de Hirsch Fund, the Woodbine Agricultural School attracted talented boys and girls, 14 or older, who paid neither tuition nor room and board. They were required to work, gaining experience at the school’s expansive model farm, boasting orchards, greenhouses, an apiary, dairy processing barns and equipment, and gardens. Expanded from a three to a four-year program in 1900, its course of study allowed students to acquire practical skills as farmers, gardeners and florists, while securing a very good high school education. They could also apply to an advanced program offering intensive instruction in animal husbandry, botany, horticulture, floriculture and agriculture. Many of the 100 or so in each class were the children of Woodbine residents. Most went on to college and pursued successful careers in garden and landscape design, animal husbandry, farm management and teaching. Many purchased their own farms and raised chickens.
When a lengthy article about the school, illustrated with photos, appeared in B’nai B’rith’s magazine, The Menorah, in 1900, its District leaders were summoned to the colony to inaugurate the Maurice de Hirsch Lodge. Arriving by train, the men were hailed with great fanfare by townspeople and greeted by welcoming placards in store windows and a buffet meal prepared from ingredients produced on the school farm. Meanwhile, all these students had taken their places at the synagogue, adorned with patriotic bunting. There, they and the lodge candidates were treated to a concert of patriotic music by a fife and drum corps. Initiated into the Maurice de Hirsch Lodge were 30 members of the Agricultural School staff who had elected as president their dean of faculty, Dr. Hirsh Sabsovich, a social worker and Russian immigrant.
The B’nai B’rith officers praised the academics for “rescuing the persecuted,” after which Sabsovich delivered his first speech as president, observing that in Woodbine, the Jewish people had found Zion’s milk and honey literally flowing from the dairy and hives tended at the school. Indeed, the honey had been awarded the Grand Medal at the 1900 Paris Exposition.
The agricultural school closed in 1917. What happened to the colony? For the Jewish farmers and their children who gradually left, the school was a stepping stone to success in less physically demanding but more lucrative endeavors. Over the years, Christians came to outnumber the dwindling Jewish populace. In 1979, the area was designated as part of the Pinelands National Reserve. The large synagogue still stands. It serves also as a community center and a local museum that includes an exhibit on Baron de Hirsch and the fascinating narrative of Woodbine history.
Lawrence Levy, the grandson of original Woodbine settlers, volunteers at the museum. He vividly recalls the predominantly Jewish culture in Woodbine through the 1950s, when shops closed on Shabbat but did a thriving business on Sundays. He remembers a self-contained town, where even the bricks for the synagogue were manufactured.
Jane Stark, executive director of the Sam Azeez Museum of Woodbine Heritage at the synagogue, said that Jewish services are conducted by a female Reconstructionist rabbi and attended by dozens of retirees from the Philadelphia area and Cape May County. Woodbine descendants, some in their 90s, maintain a national network and continually write, support and send artifacts to the museum. A 1993 centennial event drew some 600 with Woodbine settlement connections to the community, far surpassing the expected number of 150.
The German Parallel
Supporting an extensive number of charities in their country and in the Near East, Germany’s District 8 lodges became involved with the Jewish agricultural movement through a member who initiated his own school, which would train hundreds of young people over the course of nearly half a century.
When Germany’s first Jewish farming academy, the Ahlem Agricultural School, opened in 1893, the same year as Woodbine it was the culmination of a dream envisioned by a B’nai B’rith lodge member, diplomat and philanthropist. Moritz Alexander Simon invested his own fortune, 250,000 marks (about $1 million at the time, worth over $24 million today) to found the institution. Situated on an estate close to the spas and resorts in the town of Ahlem outside Hannover, the school admitted high school-aged boys, and later girls, who participated in a three-year curriculum that included classes in handicrafts and domestic science, but also offered apprenticeships in horticulture and the study of fruit.
The students worked in Ahlem’s abundant orchard groves, enlarged at least once with money from the German government, and were allowed access to fruit trees and vineyards growing on other local properties. Included in the first class of about 50 or 60 young men were 15 from Russia and Galicia whose passages to Germany had been paid for by Baron de Hirsch.
Simon asked B’nai B’rith for more funds. He and the German lodges formed a partnership that received the blessings of American Grand Lodge President Julius Bien, after he toured the campus during his travels to Europe and the Orient. He said that District 8 “appropriated large sums for its [Ahlem’s] support … if we only had this one institution to point to, as having inspired it and given the impulse for its existence, it would justify all the labor and energy expended by the noble brethren.” Additional donations from the Hannover and Frankfurt Lodge members were made for the purchase of tools and machinery.
Incorporated in 1895, Ahlem was “a creation of the Order” whose directors included several B’nai B’rith officers. In The Menorah of January 1898, Ahlem was considered the catalyst for a transformative future: “We feel confident that the institution will become a nursery for bringing out the greatest benefactors of the Jewish race and society at large, and will be the means of turning masses of Jewish muscle to the employment which is the noblest which can be followed.”
In 1900, Simon wrote in The Menorah that his educational philosophy was based on the love of nature: “I consider the imparting of instruction in handicrafts and garden culture necessary to children, as young as kindergarten age,” he wrote. The school’s policies, however, went beyond that. Teachers adopted, according to the Simon article, “a strict military directness, united with kind, benevolent treatment … There should be instilled into the young the sentiment of homelike feeling for the institution leaving an impression lasting through life.”
Fostering civic responsibility between class and work time, pupils learned first aid and rescue techniques, while “a fire engine has been acquired and a voluntary corps has been organized [by the pupils] which has already done good service in the neighborhood.” Attracting an international coterie of applicants, the school was highly regarded; a letter written by famed novelist Franz Kafka expresses his longing to turn back the clock and to enroll and undergo the Ahlem experience. Of its 400 alums, a number assumed managerial positions in farm settlements in countries, including the United States, South America, England, and in Merchavia, one of Palestine’s earliest Jewish colonies. In the 1930s, three Ahlem alumni who immigrated to Palestine—Meier Bickel, Yechiel Segall and Haim Latte—became important landscape and garden designers in that land. Another, Salomon Weinberg, created the Ramat Hanadiv Park located south of the Zichron Yaakov Colony.
Assuring the school’s continuance, Simon left all his money to Ahlem when he died in 1905. It was renamed the Jewish Horticulture School in 1919. As the Nazis gained power and denied professional careers to Germany’s young Jewish people, applications to Ahlem steadily increased.
The Gestapo took possession of the site in 1941, when it became a collection point for Jews rounded up for deportation to death camps. It later housed slave laborers and then served as a concentration camp prison, where Jews, Gypsies and political dissidents were tortured and killed. The American troops who liberated the prison in April 1945 found few survivors.
In the early postwar years, the site housed a Jewish-sponsored training farm; participants were death camp survivors. In 1958, an agricultural research institute operated there. In 1987, the director’s house on the school grounds reopened as a museum, but the construction of a full scale memorial museum—comprising both the original 19th century buildings—began in 2011. It officially opened in 2014. Inside the buildings are documents and artifacts connected with the school and its subsequent use as prison and deportation site.
The surrounding public park functions as a large scale memorial. Fusing past and present, the grounds are dotted with glass structures, containing exhibits, through which can be seen what remains of the school’s period architecture. Grown on the property are the fruit trees, flowers and plants that were raised at the school in the early 20th century. As they traverse the gardens and fields, visitors can read the Ahlem students’ biographies, reports and testimonials incorporated into markers posted along the walkways.