Baron de Hirsch Fund (1891 - Present)

Biographical notes:

The death in 1887 of the only surviving child of Clara and Maurice de Hirsch, while a personal tragedy for the couple, turned out to be of the greatest benefit to world Jewry. With the death of their only heir, the Baron and Baroness de Hirsch decided to make humanity their heir. One such product of this largess was the Baron de Hirsch Fund, organized in New York City in 1891.

Like the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA), another major de Hirsch sponsored organization, the Baron de Hirsch Fund represented the Baron's belief the solution to Jewish suffering in Russia lay in emigration. The Fund's monies were expended not on encouraging emigration, however, but rather on supporting Jewish immigrants once they arrived in the United States and teaching them new trades and occupations. To that end, the Fund's Board of Directors, which included such prominent American Jews as Myer S. Isaacs, Jacob Schiff, and Oscar Straus, were given wide latitude in the selection of organizations and activities to support.

The Fund's activities can be divided into three broad areas: agriculture, trade, and general subsidies and grants. One of the Fund's major experiments in colonization was the creation in 1891 of the Woodbine Colony in southern New Jersey. The experiment never truly succeeded, however, as the land was poor for farming, the settlers were lacking in experience, and the site was too far from viable markets. Many of the settlers drifted into labor for manufacturers who were subsidized to operate in the settlement; even manufacturing was often a troubled enterprise though). The Fund provided large subsidies to start the colony but after many years of unsuccessful productivity, they began reducing aid in 1929. By the 1940s, the Baron de Hirsch Fund had left Woodbine.

Located near the Woodbine Colony was the Woodbine Agricultural School founded by the Fund in 1893. The school was never intended as a counterpart to existing agricultural schools or colleges. Rather, students were given both practical and theoretical classroom introductions to agriculture sufficient to enable students to acquire junior positions on existing farms. Any graduates who thereafter desired to purchase their own farm were given assistance by the Fund to do so. The school closed in 1917.

A third major agricultural project was the Jewish Agricultural Society (JAS). Established in 1900 as the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society (the name was changed in 1922), the JAS was originally founded by grants from the Baron de Hirsch Fund and the Jewish Colonization Association, although the Fund became its sole supporter in 1914. The JAS's major agricultural effort consisted of making loans to farmers and providing agricultural instruction on an extension basis. In addition to agricultural work, the JAS also did "industrial aid" work as the organization's original name stated. This referred to the mass relocation of immigrants from the crowded east coast cities to smaller towns across the country. Industrial aid was among the earliest projects undertaken by the Baron de Hirsch Fund, but the creation of the JAS allowed the Fund to shift those responsibilities to the Jewish Agricultural Society who in turn created the Industrial Removal Organization in 1901. From the 1940s until 1972, the JAS was practically the sole benefactor of the Fund. In 1972 the JAS was disbanded and its surviving projects were incorporated into the larger aegis of the Fund.

The Baron de Hirsch believed that anti-Semitism would be lessened if Jews could learn skilled trades and become successful in business. With this in mind, the Fund established New York City's Baron de Hirsch Trade School in 1895. Students received a short course of instruction lasting about six months during which time they were taught the basic skills necessary to become apprentices or entrepreneurs in their chosen crafts. The major fields of study were carpentry, machinery, plumbing, electrical work, and painting. The school became non-sectarian as of 1917 and in 1935 the Fund turned the school over to the city which had recently begun its own course of trade instruction.

The third major area of the Fund's work focused on various immigration aid activities largely through the financial support of several Jewish agencies. The Fund paid for agents to meet and assist Jewish immigrants at major ports of entry; subsidized English classes at the Educational Alliance (and at similar agencies in other major centers of Jewish population); undertook a program of scholarships for Jewish students planning on attending professional schools; subsidized dozens of American Jewish organizations whose work aided the Eastern European immigrant; and at the Baroness de Hirsch's suggestion, they experimented with model homes in New York City excluding the Lower East Side.

The Baron de Hirsch Fund was one of the most important Jewish philanthropic organizations in American history. At its peak it not only conducted its own honorable work, but assisted dozens of other Jewish philanthropies devoted to aiding Jewish immigrants in their adjustment to the United States. Through its many projects and experiments, the Fund was the changing force in the lives of thousands of Jewish immigrants and their descendants.

--Written by Seth Korelitz

From the guide to the Baron de Hirsch Fund Records, undated, 1819-1991 (bulk 1882-1935), (American Jewish Historical Society)

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