Pogroms in the Russian Empire
In the early part of the 19th century, Jews in Russia were confined to an area called the Pale of Settlement. The origins of this restriction began in 1790 when merchants in Moscow complained about the arrival of Jewish merchants from the area of Belorussia. In 1804 and 1835, statutes were enacted which delineated areas where Jews could settle. Within the Pale, residents were restricted in movement, educational opportunities, religious practice, occupation, and more. 1
In 1855, Alexander II became Czar of the Russian Empire, a position he held until his assassination in 1881. During this time, he tried to implement policies he believed would improve the social and economic status of the empire. Many of these policies involved reorganizing the government, curbing the powers of the ruling class, and increasing the rights of certain marginalized groups. For instance, in 1861, he abolished serfdom and allowed peasants to purchase land.
His reign marked a shift in Jewish life in the empire but not all changes were positive. While he enacted policies that curbed some hardships, he was focused on assimilation. As movement outside the Pale was increased, Jews who graduated from secondary school had some expanded rights.
Alexander II's reforms began shifting the government to a more constitutional form. However, his liberal policies spurred discontent among some and on March 13, 1881, he was assassinated by a group of anarchists.
The rule of Alexander II’s son, Alexander III, marked a backslide in progress and the empire regressed back to authoritarian rule and restrictive public policies. He was particularly aggressive in his treatment of Russian Jews. Pogroms soon erupted in the southwest area of Russia and spread throughout the empire. The violence, perpetrated by Christian Russians, destroyed property, terrorized Jewish communities, and caused physical harm and sometimes death.
Tsar Alexander II. From the National Archives of Canada.
In Eastern Europe, Jewish communities faced sporadic occurrences of violence which would eventually be referred to as pogroms. According to the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe:
"In general usage, a pogrom is an outbreak of mass violence directed against a minority religious, ethnic, or social group; it usually implies central instigation and control, or at minimum the passivity of local authorities. The term came into widespread usage after the riots of 1881 and 1882 in the Russian Empire." 2
During times of social and political unrest, Jewish communities were often targeted. In response to the increased violence and discrimination they faced, many Jews fled to areas in the United States.
In Migdal Zophim (The Watch Tower), Moses Klein recognized the limitations of living within the Russian Empire. He wrote:
"We have no security whatever that education will obtain for the 50,000 Jewish scholars of Baron de Hirsch’s 1,000 schools the right of citizenship, and that of settlement in the interior of Russia, or even the right to exercise their educational advantages for securing their independent livelihood in the Czar’s domain." 3
The Am Olam Movement
In response to the persecution and pogroms faced by Jewish communities in the Russian Empire, a new movement called Am Olam (“Eternal people”) was created. This group was formed around the idea that agriculture was the key to freedom. Founded by Mania Bakl (Maria Bahal) and Moses Herder in 1881, the group focused on setting up Jewish farming communities in the United States to flee the increasing violence and oppression in the Russian Empire. 4
The Haskalah (Haskala), or Jewish Enlightenment, was an intellectual movement popularized in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. 5 According to Ellen Eisenberg:
“Thus Odessan Jewish leaders placed much emphasis on the tenants of the Haskalah, such as the belief that practical, secular education would enable Jews to gain acceptance in the larger non-Jewish society.” 6
Arriving in America
By 1881, the immigration of Russian Jews to the U.S. had increased. Most disembarked at the New York City docks. Castle Garden, located in Battery Park in Manhattan, served as the landing depot and registration center. In 1892, Ellis Island replaced Castle Garden as the federal emigrant landing center.
From 1881-1886, about 24 agricultural communities were set up in the U.S. However, most of these settlements failed. The Alliance Colony in Salem County, New Jersey was one of the few settlements that persisted. 7
In 1882, New Odessa, Oregon, a colony of about 23 settlers was formed. At its height, 65 inhabitants farmed the land. However, challenges such as social tensions, a large fire that raised at least one major building, and difficulties in transporting crops led to the failure of the colony by 1886. 8
Raphael Crystal, Zeda, bringing water to a calf, 1928.
Samuel Galub's Naturalization Certificate, 1928.
1. YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, “Pale of Settlement,” The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, accessed 4-22-22, https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/pale_of_settlement.
2. YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, “Pogroms,” The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, accessed 4-22-22, https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/pogroms.
3. Moses Klein, Migdal Zophim (Philadelphia, 1889). Republished as Migdal Zophim & Farming in the Jewish Colonies of South Jersey (Galloway, NJ: South Jersey Culture and History Center, 2019), 13.
4. Robert S. Fogarty, All Things New: American Communes and Utopian Movements, 1860–1914 (Oxford: Lexington Books, 2003), 113.
5. “Haskala,” Britannica Online, accessed March 29, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Haskala.
6. Ellen Eisenberg, Jewish Agricultural Colonies in New Jersey, 1882–1920 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995), 26.
7. “Am Olam,” Jewish Agriculturalism in the Garden State Exhibit, Rutgers University, accessed March 29, 2022, https://sites.rutgers.edu/jewish-agriculture/a-world-of-jewish-farming/am-olam/.
8. Jim Kopp, “Am Olam,” Oregon Encyclopedia: A Project of the Oregon Historical Society, accessed March 29, 2022, https://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/am_olam/#.YkMLlTUpBPa.
“Woodbine, New Jersey: Fifteen Acres and a Shul” Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center http://www.philajewisharchives.org/woodbine-intro/
For more on the Haskalah, see the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe entry.