(Tablet Magazine) — Every morning before breakfast, Rabbi Rafoel Franklin, 60, an Orthodox Jew living in Swan Lake, N.Y., puts on tefillin, says his morning prayers, and then heads outside to milk his 30 cows. Three decades ago Franklin and his wife, Naomi, left Monsey, N.Y., the ultra-Orthodox hamlet outside New York City, to start their farm in the Catskills. Franklin, who became religious as an adult, had spent his childhood in Montana and once worked as a wildlife biologist. He moved out of Monsey because he wanted to live a life that reflected his love of the natural world as well as his devotion to the Torah. “In Monsey I was working as a shochet”—a ritual slaughterer—“and I was dissatisfied by what I saw,” Franklin told me.
His more satisfied life in Swan Lake is filled with feathers, hay, and farm chores. The farm, which he runs with his son, Eliezer, houses a sustainable kosher-chicken company, Pelleh Poultry, that processes 4,000 chickens each week. (Industrial slaughterhouses, in contrast, often handle tens of thousands of chickens every day.) And in November he launched Bethel Creamery, the country’s only organic, Chalav Yisrael (a strictly kosher designation endorsed by Hasidim) dairy—selling the milk to customers in Monsey and Brooklyn.
Franklin’s move to his farm can seem prophetic. Today, the country’s growing obsession with local, traceable food has increased the demand for products like his and lured some young people away from office jobs and toward the farm. This holds true for the Jewish world as well. There are programs like Adamah, an agricultural fellowship in Connecticut, which brings together Jewish twentysomethings to live on a farm, tend its eight acres of organic crops, and milk goats, make pickles, and celebrate Shabbat. This summer, Adamah’s founder, Adam Berman, launched Urban Adamah—a similar program in Berkeley, Calif., that focuses on increasing food access for low-income residents, as well as sustainable farming. Meanwhile, synagogues and JCCs across the country are launching a number of farm-to-shul initiatives, from community-supported agriculture projects to parking-lot gardens.
But with all this new interest in Jewish farming, Jewish Americans’ agricultural history remains largely unknown. In the decades prior to World War II, upstate New York was dotted with egg, dairy, and produce farms owned and run by Jews. Petaluma, Calif., in Sonoma County, boasted a thriving community of chicken ranchers from the 1920s through the 1960s. Indeed, Franklin’s street in Swan Lake was once home to four Jewish farming families whose rousing post-Shabbat gatherings, he told me, routinely piqued the curiosity of non-Jewish neighbors.
Many of these farms were beneficiaries of the Jewish Agricultural Society, an organization founded in New York in 1900 by a German Jewish philanthropist, Baron Maurice de Hirsch. An urban Jewish businessman with utopian, pre-industrial leanings, de Hirsch spent his fortune helping Eastern European Jews escape anti-Semitism in their home countries and settle on American pastures, far away from the cities’ tenements. The society provided loans for purchasing land, seeds, and equipment and offered practical education to the settlers, many of whom had minimal prior experience as farmers. It even published a magazine in Yiddish and English called The Jewish Farmer. With the baron’s support, and the opportunity to own land in America (a privilege not consistently afforded to them in Europe), these farmers had the chance to build on Judaism’s ancient agricultural legacy—a heritage filled with agricultural tenets (“in the seventh year thou shalt let [the land] lie fallow,” Exodus tells us) and joyful harvest holidays like Shavuot and Sukkot.
From its founding through the middle of the 20th century, the society helped settle nearly 5,000 Jewish farmers and their families on homesteads in New York and beyond. It also placed tens of thousands of Jewish workers on established farms throughout New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut, Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Florida. In California, the German Jewish Haas family—heirs to the Levi Strauss denim fortune—helped fund the Jewish chicken ranchers in Petaluma. In the 1920s, Yiddish plays and concerts were staged in Petaluma, and Golda Meir considered it a vital enough community to make it a fundraising stop in the 1930s.
It’s no coincidence that the wealthy, assimilated, urban philanthropists moved to assist their less-fortunate brethren by helping them set up shop far away from the cities. “Very rich German Jews, they always wanted the Russian Jews should be farmers,” Petaluma resident Hymie Golden says in Kenneth Kann’s “Comrades and Chicken Ranchers.” “They wanted to prove that not all are merchants or bankers like them.” In 1938 Time reported that there were nearly 100,000 Jewish farmers working in the United States, including Max Yasgur, the amicable dairyman who would famously allow Woodstock to erupt on his fields in Bethel, NY.
Many of these mid-century farm families enjoyed modest success, while raising their children on hard work, socialist politics, and fresh country air. While not overtly religious, the communities maintained Jewish lives that were built around a synagogue, Hebrew or Yiddish schools, and organizations like Hadassah and B’nai Brith. “The local synagogue migrated to the country along with us,” Sonny Whynman, whose family moved from the Bronx to start an egg farm in Toms River, N.J., in the mid-1940s, when he was 7, told me. Many people from his old Bronx neighborhood decided to settle in rural New Jersey, too, he said.
But as the years passed and farming in America declined, the Jewish farms became increasingly harder to maintain. In the early 1960s, the Jewish Agricultural Society surveyed Jewish American farmers. “In the beginning farming was very good, but now [it’s] in very bad shape,” wrote farmer Aron Bakal, from Wurstboro, N.Y. Asked for his thoughts on the future, he wrote, “Time will show everything.”
The Jewish Agricultural Society closed up shop in 1972, and soon the once-vibrant Jewish farming communities were gone. By the late 20th century, when Franklin started his farm, the established notion was that American Jews belonged in cities or suburbs, working as professionals. Farming—aside from the occasional stint on an Israeli kibbutz—seemed antithetical to Jewish American identity. In 2003, Slate ran an article headlined “Why Jews Don’t Farm,” arguing that Jews’ preoccupation with literacy and education had lifted them above manual labor toward more academic pursuits.
Adamah was launched in the Connecticut Berkshires that same year. The program has thrived and inspired spinoff projects like Philadelphia’s Jewish Farm School and Chicago’s The Gan Project. Other Jews, like Franklin, found their own way to farming. Tanya Tolchin—a niece of Sonny Whynman, the onetime Toms Rivers egg farmer—and her husband, Scott Hertzberg, started a farm in Upper Marlboro, Md., that provides fresh produce to CSA members, and they recently launched a Jewish Farmers of America Wiki. Jewish farmers “are pretty much falling from the trees these days,” Hertzberg joked.
Farming remains grueling work, both physically and emotionally. Demographically speaking, the Jewish farmer is still rare (and can sound like a punch line). But farming, like religion, can come down to faith. “I never expected I would farm full-time, I just wanted to live as far away from cities as possible,” Franklin told me. “But baruch Hashem, if you do it properly, farming is the most fulfilling life I could imagine.”
(Leah Koenig is the author of “The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook.” This article originally appeared on Tablet Magazine, tabletmag.com.)