On March 3, 1903, the borough of Woodbine — dubbed “the first self-governing Jewish community since the fall of Jerusalem” — was incorporated by the New Jersey state legislature, 22 years after its establishment as a colony of refuge for Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire.
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Not all the Jews who began flooding into the United States in 1881, largely in response to government-sanctioned pogroms in eastern Europe, ended up in urban settings. The Am Olam movement, influenced by the teachings of Tolstoy, envisioned Jews beginning new lives on the land, and a variety of philanthropic organizations were committed to making such a dream possible.
One of the most active and idealistic benefactors was the German-Jewish banker Baron Maurice de Hirsch.
The industrious De Hirsch was very much of the “teach a man to fish and he can feed himself for life” school of thought. He also did not see any future for the Jews in Russia.
In “My Views on Philanthropy,” an essay he wrote in 1891, Hirsch explained that he was willing to “stake my wealth and my intellectual powers to give to a portion of my companions in faith the possibility of finding a new existence, primarily as farmers, and also as handicraftsmen, in those lands where the laws and religious tolerance permit them to carry on the struggle for existence as noble and responsible subjects of a humane government.”
To this end, Hirsch set aside $2.4 million, a princely sum in those days, for buying land and setting up Jewish farming colonies in the U.S. and Argentina.
In Woodbine, in southern New Jersey, some 60 miles from Philadelphia, his fund bought 5,300 acres (about 21,000 dunams) of swamp and scrub land, at a cost of $37,500. The initial settlers were 12 aspiring farmers and one supervisor to provide them with technical assistance.
Each was given a plot intended for agriculture, and 800 acres were set aside for a town, which was laid out on an orderly grid plan.
New Jersey, aware that it was losing prospective farmers to the expanding western frontier, was interested in drawing pioneers to work its farmland at the time. One selling point was the fact that Woodbine, in Cape May county, was served by two railroads.
Not great farmers
Residents did not arrive at Woodbine fresh off the boat. Rather, the Baron de Hirsch Fund had agents recruiting appropriate candidates in such places as New York’s Lower East Side, the first stop for many European Jews.
As a community, Woodbine was a great success; as a farming colony, less so. The soil was not as suitable for agriculture as promised, and the income yielded by the farms often had to be supplemented with other work. The town, which was planned from the start to have some factories, gradually became dependent on light industry, with small factories producing such items as clothing, hats, cigars and paper goods. That was possible thanks, in part, to construction of an electrical plant in 1892. The historical records refer to a variety of labor protests and strikes that took place in the plants.
A school opened, complete with kindergarten, opened in 1894, the same year that the Baron Hirsch Agricultural School opened its doors. It was the first such college in the United States.
When it was no longer needed as an agricultural school, it was converted into the “Woodbine School for Feeble Minded Men.” The town also boasted a vocational school .
To accommodate the all-Jewish population of Woodbine, the legislature amended the law requiring all businesses in the state to close on Sunday. In Woodbine, Sabbath was observed on Saturday and Jewish-owned businesses were permitted to open their doors on Sunday. Construction of the Woodbine Brotherhood Synagogue, a brick building, began in 1893, and it opened three years later. (Today, the building serves as the home of the Sam Azeez Museum of Woodbine Heritage, where the town’s history is documented.)
By the 1960s, Woodbine no longer had a Jewish majority, and both the farms and the factories were gone. The 2010 census showed that one-third of the borough’s families were living in poverty.