December 17, 1881, is the date on which the short-lived Jewish agricultural colony at Sicily, Island, Louisiana, was established. (December 17, one of several dates cited by sources, comes from the Commission for Commemorating 350 Years of American Jewish History.)
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Sicily Island was the first of 26 collective farming settlements created in the United States by Am Olam, an organization founded in Odessa in the wake of the 1881 assassination of Czar Alexander II. That event ushered in a new wave of anti-Semitism in the Russian Empire, which in turn triggered the great emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe to the New World.
The founder of Sicily Island, Herman Rosenthal, was a writer and publisher who believed that the salvation of Russian Jewry would come from “rais[ing] up among ourselves at least half a million farmers and laborers who will make a living from manual labor.”
The settlers of Sicily Island were looking to become American citizens, not to set up, for example, a new Jewish commonwealth. (Their contemporaries in Palestine, in contrast, in the Hovevei Zion movement, though not political Zionists, wanted to advance Jewish culture.) Nor did they desire their new home to be religiously observant. One of their members recorded, for example, that they ate ham, and celebrated Sunday as their Sabbath.
Willing to work hard
The 173 residents of the colony came from Yelisavetgrad and Kiev (both in Ukraine), and few had any experience as farmers. Though many of them were young, strong and willing to work hard, others were less interested in agricultural work. Some were even said to have joined the project simply out of a desire to escape debts owed back in Russia.
The group received the encouragement of Louisiana’s governor, Samuel D. McEnery, as well as assistance from both the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society (a predecessor to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) and the Alliance Israelite Universelle, and the New Orleans Jewish community. Two brothers from that city, Isidore and Henry Newman, offered them 2,800 acres in Catahoula Parish, in northeast Louisiana, some 260 kilometers north of New Orleans along the Mississippi River. They would not need to begin paying for the land until 1885.
The colonists wrote a detailed constitution, which stated as their goal “the improvement of the moral and intellectual condition of its members and their families,” though nothing specifically Jewish. It declared that the land, the farm animals and all other farming implements would be owned collectively by the colony, and that all citizens would have equal standing, whether or not they had invested their own funds in the project.
Another member of the colony, Joseph Petrowski, reported on its progress for the Hebrew paper Hamelitz. By March 1, 1882, he wrote that the colonists, complaining of the weather and of the land’s not being cultivable, asked the founding committee in New Orleans to find them a new plot of land to stake out. The answer to that request was no: What would the non-Jews think of Russian Jews if they gave up so quickly?
By April, however, the Mississippi had overflowed its banks, and flooded the fields of Sicily Island. By then, half of the residents had already left, and the flooding drove away most of the remainder. Sicily Island had lasted less than four months.