Jersey Reflections: Jewish Journey

By: Vince Farinaccio

The story of the Alliance settlement in Cumberland County begins in 19th century Russia.

The founding of the Alliance settlement in Cumberland County became a significant achievement in 1882. In a press release last year from the Jewish Federation of Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem Counties, the town was hailed in the opening paragraph as “the first successful colony of Jewish farmers in the United States,” but its history illustrates that this settlement was born from much more than a plan to create an agricultural community. 

The story of Alliance can be traced back to Russia, where, according to  a Vineland Historical Magazine article “History of Alliance, New Jersey, First Jewish Agricultural Settlement in the United States” by I. Harry Levin, ”five million Jews, being about half the world’s Jewish population” primarily lived in a territory in Western Russia known as Pale of Settlement, a “strip of about 313 square miles of flat and arid land…about the size of Texas…” It was here that the population worked as “craftsmen, laborers, guild workers, shoemakers, blacksmiths, tailors, bakers, etc.” 

It was also where “Russian police constantly preyed on them” and where “imperialists tried for many years to convert them to Christianity.” The Jews had to tolerate special taxes and regulations, but their life under the rule of Alexander II, the late 19th century’s most liberal and progressive Czar whose reign began in 1855, “was tolerable.”  

Levin’s paternal grandfather, a cabinet maker, had been hired by the government-controlled railway system to build railroad coaches. The job permitted him and his family to travel outside the Pale of Settlement and even take up residence for a period in Kiev. 

But the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 led to the rule of his son, Alexander III, and the brutal reversal of the more progressive regime Russia had witnessed over the previous 26 years. Online sources report that blame for the murder was directed at the Jews and, after an investigation was launched, many Jews were arrested and interrogated, including Levin’s grandfather, Moses Bayuk, a lawyer. 

“He was a personal friend of the writer Leo Tolstoy,” Levin writes of his grandfather, “and they both belonged to a social club which played cards almost every week…One of the men who played with them had lost a sum to my grandfather and had given him a paper written in Russian acknowledging the debt and agreed to repay, etc. My grandfather was…picked up by the police and they found this debtor’s paper and name on it. Since this debtor had been involved in some political experience with the police, my grandfather was detained and questioned for several days but cleared of any knowledge of the assassination and released.”

Moses Bayuk may have been released, but the direction the new Russian regime had taken was clear. The advisor selected by Alexander III, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, was known for his denunciation of Western culture and democracy and his endorsement of autocracy and the repression that usually accompanies such control. 

According to online sources, Pobedonostsev was the architect behind the May Laws, regulations instituted in 1882 that banned Jews from rural areas. Initially implemented as a temporary set of rules, the May Laws would linger for 30 years, leading to policies such as a ban on Jews voting and limitations on the number of Jewish students at schools. 

An uprising of pogroms also occurred during this time. “In Russia,” Levin writes, “’pogrom’ means ‘devastation’ and ‘destruction’” and it became “one’s duty to God and Country…to beat, harass, torture and kill the ‘Zhyd,’ the Jew. The specific goal of the pogroms was actually to destroy Judaism.”

The circumstances “made things so miserable for the Jews of Russia that they awoke to the fact that they could no longer tolerate the treatment and they had to take measures to save their lives,” Levin writes. His own family would soon be one of 43 that would emigrate from Russia, but not without carefully planning and coordinating an exit from their homeland. Most Russians chose to relocate to the U.S. and would make their new home in an urban jungle. This would not be the case with the 43 families that included Levin’s.

Next Week: A Settlement Is Born