Soil + Shul
A Jewish colony that came and went in the Berkshires
In their Sandisfield home, Lorraine and Steve German pore over photos collected of people who were part of the village's Jewish farm community.
Photo by Peter Baiamonte
Lorraine and Steve German, like many long-married couples, tell stories in stereo: He is eager and provides narrative momentum; she is precise and supplies detail. In their living room in North Granby, Connecticut, they sat down to discuss how Lorraine, a self-taught historian, came to document a largely forgotten period of local history in her upcoming book Soil + Shul in the Berkshires: The Untold Story of Sandisfield’s Jewish Farm Colony.
Established in 1902 with backing from a European philanthropist, the Sandisfield colony peaked around 1940, when Jewish landowners comprised one-quarter of the town’s total population. How the colony came about and how Lorraine became its chronicler are tandem stories, one that begins in 1975, the other ending in 1976.
Lorraine first visited the Berkshires in 1975 with her boyfriend, later her husband, whose grandparents summered in a Sandisfield house. The marriage ended, but not her ties to the place.
“I used to joke I got custody of his family in the divorce,” Lorraine says. She eventually went for a second go-round 17 years ago when she married Steve, her former husband’s cousin. The couple continue to summer in the same house, which Steve inherited from his mother. Lorraine contributed chapters to an earlier town publication, Sandisfield Then and Now, whose principal author, Ronald M. Bernard, encouraged her to further research the Jewish colony.
Sandisfield once had been “the gem of Berkshire County,” says Lorraine. At its population peak in 1800, Sandisfield was an important stop on the Hartford-Albany stage route and profited from its mills, tanneries, quarries and exports of cheese, cider, and maple sugar. Over the next century, farmers left the Berkshires for richer tillage in New York and Ohio, and the railroads bypassed Sandisfield, a stroke of infrastructure planning that amounted to lethal neglect. By 1900, Sandisfield had lost half its population.
This is where the story of Soil + Shul, due late summer, picks up. At the turn of the 20th century, the Lower East Side was perhaps the most overcrowded square mile on earth. Earlier Jewish immigrants from Germany were joined by masses of Yiddish-speaking Russians and Eastern Europeans who fled persecution and economic disenfranchisement at home. Anti-immigrant sentiment rose with the influx, and some Jewish leaders believed it crucial to get newcomers away from the city. The chosen name for the resettlement sites—farm colonies—suggested a goal of long-term Jewish self-sufficiency.
Sandisfield’s cheap land drew the attention of the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society (JAIAS), a resettlement agency endowed by the late German philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch. The colony began in earnest in 1902 when Jacob Goldberg and Elias Lipsitz each bought a farm with JAIAS support. Within two years, Jewish farmers had bought more than 30 farms, some 3,000 acres of land, in Sandisfield and adjacent towns. The first teacher at Sandisfield’s West Street School was hired because she spoke German and thus could communicate, if imperfectly, with her Yiddish-speaking students. The colony’s shul, or synagogue, was established in in 1922 in a former Baptist church (now the Sandisfield Arts Center). Steve’s grandparents arrived the same year.
Acting on a tip, Max Linder, a Jewish furrier from Austria and his Russian-born wife, Ida, bought an 18th-century colonial house in the Montville Village section of Sandisfield. The Jewish colony grew to include some 30 to 40 permanent families. Few had any agricultural training, and most failed with crops. Raising poultry required less skill and investment, and Sandisfield became a chicken town. “You couldn’t throw a nickel without hitting one,” Lorraine quips.
Many homeowners supplemented their income by taking in boarders. In the 1920s, Sandisfield’s summertime Jewish population doubled or even tripled as vacationers arrived from the Lower East Side.
“My mother and aunt slept in the chicken coop to make more room for boarders,” says Steve. The Jewish influx provoked animosity in the hinterlands, as it had in the city. One local boardinghouse advertised “No Hebrews.” A group of Christian farmers in Sandisfield agreed to keep all property sales among themselves, although resolve failed when penniless sellers were offered cold cash by Jewish buyers. Perhaps the most virulent anti-Semitism flared in Monterey in 1926 when the KKK burned a cross after a contentious town vote to renew a Jewish butcher’s slaughter license.
Still, anti-Semitism did less to erode the Sandisfield colony’s foundation than macroeconomic change. After World War II, the popularity of boardinghouses declined nationwide, and small-scale chicken farms were undercut by factory farms in distant states. Sandisfield’s last Jewish commercial chicken farmer, synagogue president Jack Sandler, retired in 1969.
The colony officially ended in 1976, when the Sandisfield synagogue could no longer raise a minyan, the quorum of ten men required for Orthodox worship. Perhaps a dozen descendant remain. Steve and Lorrain’s family house represent the longest-standing direct link to the colony’s early years. Incidentally, Lorraine herself is not Jewish. “An Episcopalian is writing the book,” she says. “Go figure.”
Jewish settlers Samuel Shankman with his grandchildren, from left, Esther Charney, Sadie Charney and Morris Charney, 1923, and the Sons of Abraham synagogue in Montville.