For many Ashkenazi Jews, physically returning to your roots requires crossing the ocean.
For some, it’s just across the bridge.
About 30 people had the opportunity last week to visit the Jewish agricultural colonies in southern New Jersey.
Bernie Cedar co-chaired a bus trip to a handful of sites with attendees from the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia as well as other descendants. The Philadelphia Jewish Archive Center and the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey also sponsored the trip.
“I’m into Jewish genealogy,” Cedar said. “There are people on both sides of the river who are interested in this.”
Ruth Bogutz also planned the trek out to the farmlands.
Bogutz, who referred to herself as “a student of the Jewish history of southern New Jersey,” has studied this history since the ’80s when the National Museum of American Jewish History hosted an exhibit on the farming colonies, which she also chaired.
Her mother-in-law was born and raised in Rosenhayn, N.J., one of the colonies.
She’s since led about six tours to the area, usually to the Alliance Colony in Carmel, N.J., on Garton Road.
One of the largest and most notable Jewish farming colonies was Alliance. Founded in 1882 in Pittsgrove Township, the colony served as home base for a number of Russian Jewish immigrants who initially fled pogroms to New York, but wanted to leave the confines of big city life.
Alliance was named after the French organization Alliance Israélite Universelle and funded by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in New York and Philadelphia, as well as the Baron de Hirsch Fund.
The population peaked at around 500. In its prime, the colony was home to four shuls.
Unfortunately, the soil of New Jersey wasn’t as fertile as that in new arrivals’ Eastern European homelands, and the colony fizzled out by the 1920s, though others nearby remained.
But Alliance was a special community.
“It’s such an important part of American Jewish history, of world Jewish history and of New Jersey history,” Bogutz said, “because not only were the settlements revolutionary — and people came who knew nothing about living on the land, and in many cases their non-Jewish neighbors taught them — but those in southern New Jersey lasted the longest and had great success.”
Bogutz admired the bravery of her ancestors in fleeing Europe for a location 40 miles outside of Philadelphia in the middle of the wilderness. They also created a society.
“They had a library. They had actors who would come occasionally from New York,” she said. “They set up schools. Education was of prime interest. They needed backers, they needed money to keep going and there were many settlements, not only Alliance.”
Many children of the colony moved away once grown, but new people settled. During World War II, more displaced people came to the area.
Now, one Alliance synagogue is left, and two others remain in neighboring colony areas.
The goal is to move those original one-room wooden structures to the Alliance shul in an attempt to preserve and protect them, as well as have a place where they can stand as testament to these communities, she said.
Through this trip, and maybe others down the road, Bogutz hopes to make people aware of this history and the people who came from these communities.
A big part of what is left of Alliance is the cemetery. There’s a section for original settlers and another that is still active.
There are also two Holocaust memorials within the cemetery — one is a concrete tree with no branches, the other a series of red brick walls that do not connect and do not have a roof.
In the middle is a sculpture of hands coming out of flames. Written on the inside of the walls are names of the concentration camps, in addition to memorial plaques.
“It’s a very, very moving experience to see this in this wide open land area,” Bogutz said. “It is the most moving of all the memorials that I’ve seen.
“I want people to know that some of our ancestors came there and what they did to be able to care for their families, worship freely as Jews and become members of the community.”
Bogutz’s passion for preserving this history is infectious, but her favorite part of the trip was watching the faces of the people learning this history.
“Some of them have grandparents who may have lived in the area. It’s a constant learning process,” she said. “It’s a learning process for me, too, and it makes me happy to increase the base of people who know about these communities and to see their enthusiasm for what life was like here.”
Carol Kessler’s great-grandparents helped settle Alliance.
“I thought I was the only one in the world that was going to keep Alliance New Jersey alive, and when I had heard that they had many reunions,” she said, “people were reaching out to find their relatives.
I found out there were three sets of relatives I never even knew about.”
She noted one of her distant cousins is actually Ruth Bogutz, though they’ve never met.
She’s also a relative of the Perskie family, whose son, Joseph, later joined the New Jersey Supreme Court.
Kessler believes identifying ancestors and visiting the colony is a mitzvah.
Since she was a child, her parents told her stories of the colony. Her mother was one of eight siblings.
They moved and spent much of their lives in Wilmington, Del. — now Kessler is based in Philadelphia — but her family goes back to the beginning Alliance. She hopes others can trace back their identity there and recognize its importance.
“Even though I never met my great-grandparents,” she said, as tears formed, “it’s the family spirit that I want to keep the family together and alive, even though there were eight in the family and they had their own families and grandchildren, great-grandchildren.
“I want everyone to know about this little town and how these people evolved. They had perseverance and they had strength.”
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