North Granby residents Steve and Lorraine German have a summer home in the quiet town of Sandisfield, Mass. Steve’s grandfather owned the house, which passed down to his mother, and then to him. The house sits near the center of what was once a community of Jewish farmers who came north from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to escape discrimination.
A writer and historian, Lorraine wrote several chapters in Sandisfield’s 250th anniversary book, Sandisfield Then and Now, for its author Ron Bernard. Impressed with her work, Bernard encouraged Lorraine to write an entire book describing the history of the Jewish community that had been located there, and so came to be Soil and Shul in the Berkshires: The Untold Story of Sandisfield’s Jewish Farm Colony.
Sandisfield’s peak population occurred in 1800, when it was an important link in the Hartford/Albany stage route. The town was home to many mills, tanneries, dairies and orchards, as well as a thriving maple sugar industry. By 1900, however, railroads bypassed the town and many farmers left for greener pastures in New York state and Ohio.
Meanwhile, a large population of immigrant Jews in lower Manhattan was facing overcrowding in tenements and discrimination from neighbors. The Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, an organization to encourage the Jewish population to move out to rural areas and become self-sustaining farmers, became aware of the western Massachusetts area and its many abandoned farms. By 1904, more than 30 “resettlement sites” in and around Sandisfield were developed. The first synagogue (shul) was housed in what had been a Baptist church. (The shul is now the Sandisfield Arts Center.)
It was in that year, 1922, that Steve’s grandparents arrived in the town. Unfortunately most of the transplanted Jews had little or no agricultural background, thus most of their crops failed. They succeeded, however, in raising chickens and had thriving egg sales. They also took in summer boarders to supplement their income, as much as tripling the summer population with friends and relatives from the Lower East Side.
Just as in the city, however, discrimination followed them, with some “No Hebrews” appearing in hotel and boarding house ads all around Berkshire county. In 1926, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in the neighboring town of Monterey. In addition to these problematic events, the economy failed them, as after World War II, boarding houses declined and, even worse, small-scale chicken farms were driven out of business by the large commercial enterprises that were forming in the Midwest. The immigrant colony officially ended in 1976 when the shul couldn’t raise the ten-man council to hold Orthodox worship. About a dozen descendants of the colony remain in Sandisfield. Steve’s grandparents’ house is one of the few that has remained in the same family for three generations.
In addition to consulting newspapers, census records and deeds, Lorraine was able to talk with the remaining descendants when researching her book, which covers the settlement’s history from 1902 until the synagogue was turned over to the Sandisfield Arts Center in 1996. In doing her research, Lorraine found that there were similar Jewish farming communities in Connecticut, in Ellington and Colchester. In fact, the synagogue’s longest serving rabbi, Max Cohen, was a Hebrew teacher in Colchester before moving to Sandisfield.
Soil and Shul in the Berkshires is being published at this time and should be available in late September. Copies can be pre-ordered at sandisfieldartscenter.org/gift-shop/. The book will also be available in both Granby Public and Cossitt libraries.