By: Vince Farinaccio
Two synagogues were surrounded by 92 houses, a library, post office, school, and Alliance Cemetery.
The formation of Alliance Colony in Cumberland County in 1882 established what would become a successful Jewish farming community, but there was much more that the settlement accomplished by the end of the 19th century.
While agricultural endeavors were foremost on the minds of the settlers, Alliance wasn’t exclusively focused on farming. A press release from the Jewish Federation of Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem Counties commemorating the 136th anniversary of the Alliance Colony last year explains that “the early Alliance Colony…was much more than settlers tilling the soil. Some of the residents specialized in blacksmithing, while others were masons and cabinet-makers. Also, a clothing factory was established by Abraham Brotman, in what became known as Brotmanville.”
According to Matthew E. Pisarski and Janet W. Foster’s article “The Jewish Settlement of South Jersey: Alliance and its Contemporaries,” in Down Jersey: From Bayshore to Seashore, after two of the three barracks that had housed residents at the colony’s start were torn down in 1885, “the third remained for use as a cigar factory, which quickly failed. The building was then turned into a shirt factory [which] lasted a year in the old building and then the structure…was turned into a temporary house of worship.”
The settlement’s first synagogue and its library, funded by a $500 donation from New Yorker Jacob Schiff and $100 from M.W. Mendel, was dedicated on July 29, 1888 and lasted until just prior to World War II.
A second synagogue was built in 1889 and still stands today. Described by Pisarski and Foster as “a simple but stately two-story white clapboard structure, with two levels of rectangular windows on each side, and tall narrow round-headed windows on the gable ends,” the structure is usually referred to as the Alliance synagogue. A third house of worship, according to the press release issued by the Jewish Federation of Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem Counties, was constructed by the settlement before the end of the 19th century.
Pisarski and Foster identify that in 1889, the first two synagogues were surrounded by 92 houses as well as “a library, a post office, a school and the Alliance Cemetery.” The Jewish Federation press release reports that “by 1892, adults at Alliance numbered 660, with well over 300 children, some of whom were married. Almost 80 farms were situated on almost 2,000 acres of land.”
The population of Alliance continued to grow over the final decade of the 19th century, according to Pisarski and Foster, peaking in 1900, after which “the population declined, and while Alliance received an influx of Jewish immigrants during and just after World War II, nearly every family of the early settlers had left the community by the 1970s.”
“Eventually, many of the descendants of the Alliance settlers moved to establish Jewish communities in Vineland, Millville, Bridgeton, and beyond,” the Jewish Federation press release explains. “These descendants became doctors, lawyers, store owners, and other tradespersons while, at the same time, establishing Jewish communities in their places of residence.”
Today, there are only vestiges of what was once Alliance Colony. “Though little remains of the Jewish life that was so much a part of the area, with the names of the sections of the Alliance Colony—Norma, Brotmanville, and Six Points— just points on a map for many, the area’s Jewish roots are still to be found,” the Jewish Federation press release states. “Some street names give it away—Gershal, Brotman, Steinfeld, Eppinger, Rosenfeldt, Abrams, Seligman, Shiff. The Alliance Cemetery became the final resting place for the original colonists and their immediate families.”
The traces that exist from this chapter of local Jewish history contain the spirit of determination that drove those settlers in 1882 and beyond. I. Harry Levin’s 1978 Vineland Historical Magazine article “History of Alliance, New Jersey, First Jewish Agricultural Settlement in the United States,” provides a fitting summation of the accomplishment of the Alliance settlement: “Agricultural pioneers who left the country of their birth because of persecution, came to a new country without means or money, without knowing the language, and despite many hardships, trials and tribulations, and never having been farmers, had the strength, perseverance and courage to make their dreams and ideals come true.”
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