Museum honors Monmouth’s Jewish farmers
Annie Metz’s husband, Manny, a Freehold farmer for more than four decades, tends his land, circa 1975.
March 11, 2013
Denied the right to own land for many centuries in Europe, a number of Jewish immigrants seized the opportunity to become farmers when they came to the United States.
During the first half of the 20th century, dozens of Jewish-owned farms dotted the Monmouth County countryside.
That legacy will be recognized with a March 20 film presentation and the opening of an exhibit at The Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County in Freehold.
The program will also feature a tribute to Gertrude Wishnick Dubrovsky, who died in October 2012 after having devoted a lifetime to recording the history of Monmouth County’s Jewish farming communities.
Jean Klerman, a cofounder of the museum, is taking the lead in researching the exhibit, which is being planned and organized by the museum’s exhibits chair, Georgine Eberight, and her committee.
Klerman said the documentary film to be screened, The Land Was Theirs, initially aired on PBS stations in 1993. Cowritten and directed by Dubrovsky from her book of the same name, the film focuses on the town of Farmingdale. Spanning more than 50 years, it provides a perspective on the pressures, problems, and satisfactions of rural Jewish life. Dubrovsky knew her subject from personal experience. She was just six, one of four children, when her family moved from New York’s Lower East Side to Farmingdale in 1932. Her father had obtained help from the Jewish Agricultural Society, an organization that at first promoted large collective farms, but by the 1930s had switched its emphasis to providing supplemental loans to smaller, independent farmers.
By this time, the nation was deep in the throes of the Great Depression. According to Peddler to Suburbanite: The History of the Jews of Monmouth County, N.J., a book Klerman coauthored (then as Jean C. Hershenov) with Dr. Alan S. Pine and Dr. Aaron H. Lefkowitz, “[T]he interest in farming, especially in poultry farming, gained momentum among those Jews in the crowded cities who had lost their jobs or businesses. On a farm, they reasoned, they would at least be assured of food and shelter.”
By 1935, according to Peddler to Suburbanite, Monmouth County ranked among the top 10 agricultural counties in the United States and boasted more Jewish farmers than any other county in the state. Estimates suggested that Jewish farmers accounted for about 75 percent of New Jersey’s total egg production. “The mid-1950s marked the peak…of prosperity for New Jersey poultry and egg producers. Shortly thereafter…the market took a nosedive from which it never recovered, resulting in a forced exodus from the family farm.”
Today, it is hard to find a Jewish-owned farm in the region. Most of the fields that used to be cultivated have been turned into suburban housing tracts, horse farms, or nursery operations, Klerman said.
Annie Metz, now 90 and living at Seabrook, a continuing care retirement community in Tinton Falls, remembers what it was like to be a Jewish farm wife in Monmouth. She shared her memories during an interview for the exhibit conducted by museum board member Cindy Quitt.
Metz lived from 1944 to 1990 with her husband Manny and their two children on a 20-acre parcel on Colts Neck Road in Freehold Township.
Her in-laws farmed about 100 acres nearby, and Manny eventually wound up farming his parents’ land as well as his own.
Although, she said, there were some incidents of anti-Semitism in the early days, Metz also has strong positive memories of maintaining Jewish values and Jewish society despite the long hours and grueling toil of farm life.
She was a founding member of Hadassah in Monmouth County. Her son celebrated his bar mitzva in Freehold, and she made sure all the major holidays were observed. “When Pesach came, we had so many overnight guests at our house that the children had to sleep head to toe on the floor,” she said. She also recalled social evenings at a small synagogue in Farmingdale.
Fluent in Yiddish — she continues to teach it to her fellow residents at Seabrook — Metz also made use of a talent for singing, making appearances as a young woman at the Lakewood resort hotels.
In one of the panels she is preparing for the exhibit, Klerman describes the Hechalutz Training Farm in Cream Ridge, part of Upper Freehold.
Founded by Enzo Sereni, an Italian delegate of the Histadrut labor movement in 1936 — 12 years before Israel became an independent state — the farm functioned for more than a decade in Monmouth County as a training center for Habonim halutzim (pioneers) who intended to live and farm in Israel. The farm also offered flight training in two small Piper Cub airplanes.
If you go
What: The Land Was Theirs: film, exhibit, and tribute to Gertrude Wishnick Dubrovsky and the Jewish poultry farmers of Monmouth County
When: Wednesday, March 20, 1 p.m.; the exhibit will run through June 30
Where: Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County, Freehold
Contact: 732-252-6990 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The earliest Jewish congregation to serve Jewish farmers in Monmouth County, the First Hebrew Farmers Association of Perrineville was founded in 1910, according to Jean Klerman of the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County.
Jacob Grudin was its first president, and worship services were held in members’ homes for about 15 years. Now known as the Perrineville Jewish Center, the congregation continues to function, under the leadership of Rabbi Sheldon Schevelowitz.
In an e-mail to NJJN, Judy Zodkoy, chair of the congregation’s Social Club, noted that land for the synagogue’s first building was donated by members of the Grudin family, and many other local families contributed time, material, and labor for its construction.
Zodkoy noted that during the summer months Perrineville and the surrounding community became something of a vacation destination for New Yorkers, with some of the farmers renting out rooms.
Sylvia Hadad, a longtime PJC member and congregation spokesperson, recalled that romances blossomed during the cool country evenings and sometimes led to marriages. “It was a two-way street,” she said. “The locals saw it as a chance to escape to the big city, and the city folks saw a possible change from the urban hustle and bustle.” — ALAN RICHMAN
The last of the Jewish farmers?
At 65, Hal Rifkin of Rifkin Farms in Manalapan could be the last Jewish farmer in Monmouth County. He knows of no others.
A third-generation tiller of the land, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Harry, and his father, Irving, Rifkin continues to cultivate vegetables on 25 acres of leased land in Robbinsville. He also raises bedding plants and flowers in six greenhouses on five acres fronting on Smithburg Road in Manalapan.
“My wife Marcia and I market our produce and ornamentals from a 4,000-square-foot retail farm store located on the same piece of ground as the greenhouses,” Rifkin said. “This is our only outlet for sales; we don’t do any wholesaling.”
The store is open seven days a week between May 1 and Nov. 1, and is closed the other six months of the year.
At one time, Rifkin said he had 65 acres, but he sold 60 to a developer just in time to beat a township zoning change that would have seriously reduced the land’s value.
As much as he loves farming, vowing never to give it up, Rifkin is fully aware of how difficult it is for a small farmer to succeed today. Over the past two decades or more, he said, “sales volume has dropped considerably. Fewer meals are being cooked at home. Part of the reason is that both adults in a family usually have jobs outside the house, but part of it is the convenience of eating in restaurants or bringing in prepared foods.” — ALAN RICHMAN