By: Vince Farinaccio
The arrival of 43 Russian families in 1882 placed them in an undeveloped tract of Cumberland County.
The formation of the Alliance Colony in Cumberland County during the late 19th century occurred when a series of factors successfully aligned to transplant 43 Russian families seeking to escape Jewish persecution at the hands of the Czarist government under Alexander III.
According to I. Harry Levin’s 1978 Vineland Historical Magazine article “History of Alliance, New Jersey, First Jewish Agricultural Settlement in the United States,” Jewish emigration from Russia began with plans by two groups looking to settle abroad. Beginning in 1881, “a group of Jewish students in Kharkov organized a Zionist group and gave it the name ‘BILU,’ meaning ‘Oh House of Jacob Come – Let us go,’” Levin explains. “They managed to get help and finally…found their way to Palestine…”
Concurrently, another group calling itself “AM Olam,” (Eternal People) consisting of both students and non-students, was organized. According to Matthew E. Pisarski and Janet W. Foster’s article “The Jewish Settlement of South Jersey: Alliance and its Contemporaries,” in Down Jersey: From Bayshore to Seashore, this “Jewish social movement” was ideologically driven in an attempt to “remake the Jewish condition by re-forging ties to the land that had existed in Biblical times” by returning to an agricultural life that “would allow the members of the Jewish diaspora to support themselves and live in community with other Jews.”
The group’s goal, as Levin sees it, was “to own a home and land as a means of earning a living and to be true citizens of their adopted country.” In order to achieve it, this collective would need the assistance of others, beginning with the Alliance Israelite Universelle, a Paris-based organization founded in 1860, according to Levin, “by a group of influential Jewish citizens of France at a time when there was a wave of anti-Semitic outbreaks and persecutions.” Dr. Moses Dropsie was its Philadelphia representative at the time and may have helped steer emigrants to South Jersey.
Because the future founders of the Alliance settlement chose the U.S. as its destination, the Universelle partnered with the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society (HEAS), a New York organization partially financed by the Baron de Hirsch Fund, and with a group of philanthropists known as “the New York Committee.” Pisarski and Foster report that “the HEAS plan was to guide new Jewish immigrants away from the crowded lower East Side ghettoes of New York toward a better life in America.”
The rural area surrounding the Maurice River in Cumberland County was as different from the urban sprawl of New York’s East Side as one could get and offered those seeking an agricultural life an ideal setting. Pisarski and Foster explain that in 1882 HEAS offered to purchase approximately 1100 acres of the land from the Leach family, who owned much of the property west of the Maurice River. At the time, this area was “mostly scrub oak and pine” and was “sparsely populated with timbermen [sic] and a few berry farmers.”
The Leach family agreed to the sale and became the developers for the settlement of Alliance, named after the Alliance Israelite Universelle and, according to Levin, “in honor of all the other organizations and institutions who actually formed an alliance…to aid and assist these new settlers. Besides the Universelle, the de Hirsch Fund and HEAS, Levin’s article cites the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the London Mansion House and the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society as also assisting the new colony.
The May 1882 arrival of the 43 Russian families in New York began a whirlwind series of events that would place them in an undeveloped tract of Cumberland County land and facing a monumental amount of work and an uncertain future. Living quarters were non-existent in their new location and, according to Levin, “some politicians in Vineland were able to get their higher-ups to get through a Resolution No. 230 authorizing the Secretary of War to lend 1,200 Army tents for the use of the Jewish refugees…”
For the next several years, the emigrants would find they had assistance when needed from the residents in nearby towns and in the immediate vicinity of their settlement. When this series continues, we’ll examine how they molded a community built on faith and conviction.