Baron de Hirsch and the Jewish Farmers
I n 1837, the first Jewish communal farm was established in the Town of Wawarsing near the present day Rondout Reservoir. The community, led by Moses Cohen, was called Shalom, Peace. The settlers consisted of 13 families of Jewish immigrants.
Four hundred eighty four acres were sold to them by Edmund Bruyn and it was soon clear that these acres were unsuitable for farming. Before long, some of the men were working at the local tannery while others fell back on traditional trades like tailoring and peddling. By 1842, there were only 4 of the original families left in "Sholam" which had been renamed by a census taker.
Today there are no traces left of this early experiment in communal living. The houses, dining hall and synagogue which once symbolized the efforts of these pioneers were lost to time, weather and fire. A plaque commemorating this community can be found in the lobby of the Ezrath Israel Synagogue in Ellenvillle.
Fifty years later, there would be a larger organized effort to settle Jews from urban slums to the farms of the Rondout and Neversink Valleys in New York as well as a dozens of farming communities across the United States, Palestine and South America. That effort, The Jewish Agricultural Society, financed in great part by Baron de Hirsch led to the rise of thousands of small farms, especially in Sullivan County and near Ellenville. Ellenville even had a Jewish Agricultural Society office.
Hundreds of farms struggled to make ends meet. Their response was to take in summer boarders. First were Kuchalayn or cook yourself/ communal kitchen boarding houses, then bungalow colonies and hotels. Jews from the city who were barred from visiting the gentile resorts of the Catskills finally had vacation opportunities of their own. Business flourished. Thus the Borscht Belt resorts like the Grossingers, Nevele and Concord which would make the region world famous throughout the 20th century were beginning to take shape.