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In Salem County, farming links Black and Jewish families — and history

By Kevin Riordan, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

The 37 varieties of soil in Pittsgrove Township are excellent for the vegetable farming that has long defined the landscape of Salem County, New Jersey.

Also growing nicely there is a business and personal partnership between a Jewish family and a Black family, each with deep local roots. The organic farming operation the partners envision is an echo of the past, when Quakers and other Gentile neighbors helped urban Jewish refugees from Russia learn how to make a living from the land in South Jersey.

"We've been drawn back here," said William Levin, a Vineland native and animation instructor. In 1882, Levin's great-great-grandfather, Moses Bayuk, established the Jewish agricultural settlement called the Alliance Colony in Pittsgrove.

Levin, his wife, Malya, and their three young children currently split their time between a Brooklyn, New York, apartment and a split-level house formerly owned by William Levin's grandparents on Gershal Avenue in Pittsgrove. Gershal is the main street of the long-ago colony that is widely considered to be the first successful community of its kind in America.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a movement based in Europe enabled Jews fleeing violent persecution to start new lives in small, utopian-minded settlements in South Jersey and other rural areas in the United States.

Founded on 1,800 acres with 43 original settlers, by 1901 Alliance Colony was home to 151 adults, 345 children, 78 farms and four synagogues. Many of the children of those early generations of farmers were able to attend college or enter professions other than farming, and within a few decades Alliance faded. The original farm families sold or rented their land or let it go fallow, and in the intervening years, there has been little development in the sparsely populated, now predominantly Black section of the township.

 

The Levins got the inspiration for what is now ACRe (Alliance Colony Reboot) - a nonprofit effort to renew the hamlet as a center of Jewish life and agriculture - after attending a retreat at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut in 2014. Given that their only hands-on experience tilling the soil occurred when a bumper crop of tomatoes seeded themselves in containers William tended on their Park Slope fire escape, they were determined to become, if not farmers, then farm stewards.

"Now our neighbors" in New Jersey "are helping us, and we're helping them," Levin said.

"We had a lot of trouble getting local farmers interested in organic," added Malya Levin, a lawyer. "Joe and Kenny were open to the idea."

That would be Joe L. Bartee and his grandson Kenneth Bartee - who are the K & J of K & J Organic Farms. This is their second year working nearly 50 acres that the Levins either inherited or purchased along Gershal Avenue.

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