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A Chance for Land & Fresh Air


In 1907, Russian Jewish immigrants began buying dairy farms in the Ellsworth hills above Sharon. This is the story of thirty families, some whose descendants still work farms around Sharon. Due to the poor soil of the farmland, the immigrants looked for ways to supplement income, and around 1920 entered the burgeoning hotel business catering to New York Jews looking to get away from the city for vacation. Nearby Amenia, near the train station, was the perfect spot. The town was a lively Jewish resort for several decades.

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A Chance for Land and Fresh Air, released by the Sharon Historical Society, draws on a three-room exhibit of the same name that drew unprecedented viewers and critical acclaim while it was open to view at the Society between October 2016 and April 2017.

 In 1907, the first of thirty Jewish families settled in the Ellsworth hills above Sharon to try their hand at dairy farming. Most of the immigrants purchased land with mortgage assistance from the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, funded by the Belgian Jewish philanthropist, Baron Maurice de Hirsch. The Russian Czar had forbidden Jews to farm, and Hirsch hoped that farming would enable Jews to become productive and fully-respected citizens in America. But the Ellsworth hills were too stony for dairy farming, and most families subsidized their incomes by taking in city Jews wanting kosher vacations in the fresh air.

In the 1920s, as their children reached high school age, the immigrants began moving down from the hills, many to Amenia, New York, a town directly on the train line, where the high school was more welcoming. These families built kosher boarding houses and small hotels, as well as a range of business, and by the end of the decade Amenia was a sufficiently busy resort town to support a synagogue.

 Ascher draws her important and moving story of Jewish rural life in the early decades of the twentieth century from photos and interviews with such descendants as Epsteins, Gorkofskys, Marcuses, Osofskys, Paleys, Rothsteins and Temkins, as well as from land records, census data and other historical documents. Thanks to funding from Baron de Hirsch, similar settlements of Russian Jewish farmers took place in other rural communities in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York, as well as throughout the United States and Canada.

 “This book is not just about Ellsworth and Amenia, nor is it just about a dozen Russian immigrant families adjusting to America. It is about all immigrants who flee, arrive, and struggle to assimilate into a strange new land, learn a new language, take up an altogether new way of life.”  – Norman Osofsky, descendant

“The detailed scholarship and memorable stories that make up this book offer today’s reader insight into the refugee experience and leave the reader inspired by these stories of struggle and achievement – Mary Donohue, author of Back to the Land: Jewish Farms and Resorts in Connecticut, 1890-1945

A Chance for Land and Fresh Air adds several new families and additional material to the Sharon Historical Society’s exhibit, which was guest-curated by Carol Ascher and curated by the Society’s Marge Smith. The exhibit was funded by Connecticut Humanities and the Berkshire Taconic’s Wasserman Streit Y’DIYAH Memorial Fund.

The exhibit was on display at the Historical Society between October 2016 and April 2017. The exhibit is now permanently installed in Amenia’s Congregation Beth David

About the Author:  Carol Ascher is the author of seven books, including biography, memoir, and fiction. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New York TimesThe Hartford CourantThe NationMs. Magazine, and in a number of literary magazines, as well as locally in The Lakeville Journal and Main Street. She has received literary awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the New York State Foundation for the Arts, and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.

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