This Day in Jewish History

1896: A Russian Farming School for Jewish Boys Is Founded in America

Taking as its model the wave of Jewish farming in Russia, the National Farm School was opened to help boys understand that 'living meant working and creating under the open sky.'

Bloomberg

On April 10, 1896, the National Farm School in Doylestown, PA, received its charter. Known today, in the form of its successor institution, as the Delaware Valley College, the school was originally intended to provide agricultural training to young men, particularly recent Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia.

The founder of the National Farm School was Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf (1858-1923), a Prussian-born Reform rabbi from Philadelphia. In 1894, at the height of Jewish emigration from the czarist empire, Krauskopf, who from the beginning of his career had been interested in child welfare and other aspects of social justice, visited Russia to study the conditions of his brethren living in the Pale of Settlement. After witnessing the enthusiasm of Jews who were permitted to live their lives as farmers, he requested to meet with the czar in the hope of persuading him to allow more of them to move outside the Pale and buy land.

The czar did not receive him, but Krauskopf did visit with Count Leo Tolstoy at the latter’s estate, Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy, who had started a number of schools for Russian serfs, urged him to counsel urban Jews in the United States to move to the countryside, where they could exploit the agricultural instincts they had supposedly acquired in biblical times.

Itzik Ben-Malki

At Tolstoy’s suggestion, Krauskopf visited the Jewish Agricultural School in Odessa and was so impressed with what he saw that when he returned to America, he decided to establish a similar institution, which he saw as "one of the best means of securing safety and happiness to the sorely afflicted of our people."

The school he imagined “was not to be a sanitarium or reformatory,” said Krauskopf. “We wanted the best the city could offer us in mind, in body, and in spirit. We wanted the boys with ideals and dreams who felt that living meant working and creating under the open sky.”

Krauskopf bought an abandoned 118-acre (roughly 480 dunams) farm in Bucks County, PA, with $3,500 from his own bank account and $26,500 raised during a series of lecture tours. On it he built a single, multi-purpose building and purchased the needed equipment. The first class of students, comprised of 10 boys, none of whom paid anything to attend or live at the school, arrived in September 1897. Although its founder, whose motto was “science with practice,” was looking to provide relief for urban Jewish boys, the National Farm School was open to young men of all religions and backgrounds.  

The name of the school changed several times over the decades; since 1989, it has been the Delaware Valley College. In 1946, it became a junior college, and two years later, a four-year senior college. In 1969, it began accepting women. Today, it has three locations, offers both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in a wide variety of fields and has more than 2,000 undergraduate and graduate students.