THE RELUCTANT RESCUERS
They are blind and they are deaf and they are dumb, because they cannot make known their wants except to those of their own condition. We must give them hearing and give them speech! We must rescue them!American Jews meant well. Two of their major publications, the American Hebrew and the American Israelite, sympathetically chronicled the arrivals of the Russian Jews, week after week, month after month. Their situation was often described in Messianic terms as if American Jews had a religious responsibility to welcome them to American shores. The American Hebrew, December 2, 1881, editorialized:
SUCCOR FOR THE OPPRESSED - Never did the Mayflower's pilgrims cast more longing eyes towards these hospitable shores than do the oppressed subjects of a semi-civilized government today; never did our wretched brethren, with all their religious ardor, utter prayer more fervent for the speedy coming of the Messiah and their return to the Holy Land, than they now offer that they soon may breathe the free air of this favored land. Ground beneath the iron heel of Russian tyranny, ruthlessly despoiled of all their earthly possessions, their lives embittered by the fanaticism of an ignorant populace, they turn to us pleadingly. Knowing their sad condition, we extend them our hand and bid them welcome. At first, there was a genuine sense of optimism. American Jews would rescue their oppressed Russian brethren, put them on farms in America, thus furthering a Jewish "back to the land" movement and improving the image of Jews in America and throughout the world. Then, too, it would be no small act of goodwill towards their Russian brethren. Farming had stability and carried with it an implied ownership of land. In the 1880s, farming was the main occupation of America, it was the backbone of the country. American Jews said no better fate could befall the emigrants than to become farmers. They should be grateful. 
There were other reasons. There was the feeling that by distributing the refugees throughout America they would have more opportunities for a political voice in the country, that they would experience democracy in a manner that had never been possible for them in Russia.  Then, there was also the motivation to prove that Jews could be good farmers. Jews in farming, hundreds of Jews in farming, might well help to change, for the better, the commercial, business-oriented image that stereotyped Jews throughout the world.  Rabbi Isaac Wise suggested in the American Israelite, November 17, 1882, that "promoting agricultural pursuits among the Israelites ... will help to suppress prejudice."  Likewise, when the National Farm School was established in Philadelphia in 1897, the school's catalogue reported that many of America's Jewish leaders hoped the school would contradict "the prevailing sentiments that Jews seek only to cultivate commercial pursuits." 
But concerns about democracy, economics, agricultural benefits and a better image for Jews were only props for the main reason many Jewish leaders were pushing for farm colonies. They were afraid. They did not want the refugees in their cities. They felt there was little room for them. There were few jobs; indeed, there were already thousands of Jews in the cities without jobs, living in abject poverty. The Russian Jews would add massively to that problem. Farm colonies were the answer. 
In his study of the Beersheba colony in Kansas, A. James Rudin quoted Benjamin Peixotto, the author of Anglo-Jewish History and a member of a New York Jewish family:
If 500,000 Jews come into the city (New York) within the next thirty years (1887-1917), there will creep up a spirit of enmity ... as in old Europe today. There will be no safety, there may be dishonor, disgrace and misery on every side. There is enough misery already. Go over to the East Side where from 40,000 to 50,000 Jews now live. Go on a Sunday and look at the crowd of Jews, jabbering, uttering language unnatural, inhuman, making the day hideous with their sights and voices. They are blind and they are deaf and they are dumb, because they cannot make known their wants except to those of their own condition. We must give them hearing and give them speech! We must rescue them! There were rallies, editorials in Jewish newspapers, sermons and speeches. Philanthropist and financier, Jacob Schiff, organized the Russian Refugee Relief and Colonization Fund. He gave $10,000 to establish a Schiff Refuge on Ward's Island outside New York City, and he encouraged Jews throughout America and the world to follow his example. There was precious little response. 
The formation of the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society (HEAS) marked the first formal attempt to organize the emigrants and finance agricultural colonies for them. However, the society also had the more immediate job of tending to the emigrants' needs as they arrived from the old country. They arrived by the thousands, virtually destitute, and taking care of them severely hampered the society's efforts to get agricultural colonies under way. However, HEAS gave it a determined try and called for donations to help establish the colonies. The society estimated it would require "at least $500 per colonist until the first crop came in" after which "it is fairly presumed they will be self-sustaining." But there were few takers, few donations. 
It had only been a few months since the first Russian refugees arrived, but American Jews, particularly in New York, were fast becoming disenchanted. It was within their resources to accommodate a boat or two of Russian refugees, even as many as 500 or 1,500. But it was asking too much, they felt, to take responsibility for thousands. The Russians poured off the boats, day after day, "scrawny pallid men with long scraggly beards and earlocks, dressed in frayed greenish-black caftans; women with sunken cheeks, scarves pulled tight over fierce black wigs, and children dressed as small adults, some appearing downright Oriental." 
They were truly different. American Jews wanted to help, they felt sympathy for the Russians, they knew they had suffered, they knew they had been persecuted. But they had so little in common with them. Most American Jews, particularly those who had the means and resources to help, were not Orthodox, they were not religious in the literal interpretations of Biblical laws and teachings. They perceived themselves as liberated from such interpretations; indeed, they had a different world view from that of the Russian Jews. They were uncomfortable at the way the Russians dressed, their Yiddish language, their drabness, their simple ways. It would be fair to say they looked down on them.  This patronizing attitude would later repeatedly reflect itself in the relations of Beersheba, the first of the Western Kansas Jewish agricultural colonies, with its Eastern sponsors.
Likewise, the Russians knew they were being patronized, that they were looked down upon, and they resented it. Communications were difficult. The Russians had to adjust themselves to a new way of life, a new land, new customs, new Gentile neighbors and new Jewish neighbors as well. And, for the life of them, the Russians could not understand why their rescuers, the American Jews, were not more Jewish, why they compromised on dietary laws, on prayers, on rituals, and the details of the faith that they, as Russian Jews, took so seriously and had stubbornly clung to for so many generations, even in the face of death. 
But still they came to America. The situation became truly unpleasant. The HEAS was under extraordinary pressure. From HEAS' very beginnings, emigrants had thronged its offices; it had been as if the society was under siege, the emigrants imploring for help. There were thousands to help, thousands more coming in each day. Most were desperate. So were HEAS workers, and perhaps as frazzled, if not more so, than were the emigrants. The organization only survived a year, and during that time it had three presidents and four secretaries. 
In December, 1881, the society's leaders implored their European counterpart, the Alliance Universelle, to stop sending emigrants. There was not enough money to handle them and additional funds were almost impossible to raise. We absolutely do not agree with you," the HEAS leadership wrote, "that immigration to America is the only solution for the Russian Jews." 
But emigrants continued to arrive in New York, homeless, literally starving on its streets. "Every Jew must give liberally, largely," the society declared, "not to carry out any grand plan of colonization of those that are here, but to save them from actual starvation and ourselves from reproach."
The leaders of HEAS seemed desperate. "We appeal, we beg, we implore you to subscribe to the utmost of your ability," they asked American Hebrew readers in its May 23, 1882 issue.  But the funds remained woefully inadequate. By the end of 1882, HEAS was decidedly anti-emigration. One of its officers, Moritz Ellinger, contended:
America is not a poorhouse (or) an asylum for the paupers of Europe. (European Jewry) may ask us what they are to do with the sick, and aged and infirm. (My) reply would be: "That is your business; we take care of our own sick, aged and infirm, and ask assistance of no one. The leaders of Rochester, New York's United Hebrew Charities put it bluntly:
They (the Russian emigrants) are a bane to the country and a curse to the Jews. The Jews have earned an enviable reputation in the United States, but this has been undermined by the influx of thousands who are not ripe for the enjoyment of liberty and equal rights, and all who mean well for the Jewish name should prevent them as much as possible from coming here....But not everyone felt that way. Jacob Schiff continued to donate money and to provide for refugees at Ward's Island. Michael Heilprin, a teacher, journalist, scholar, and editor of Appleton's Cyclopedia, championed the refugees' cause long after it became unpopular to do so.  And when HEAS died, Heilprin continued its work, organizing a new association, the MonteÞore Agricultural Aid Society, that had more success in establishing agricultural colonies than had the HEAS. Four of Kansas' colonies -- MonteÞore, Lasker, Hebron and Gilead -- were projects of the MonteÞore society. But most important, at least to the history of the Kansas communities, was the untiring, unswerving, determined commitment of Cincinnati's Isaac Mayer Wise, editor of the American Israelite, and the dominant, driving force of Reform Judaism in America.
Issue after issue, Rabbi Wise crusaded in the American Israelite for Jewish agricultural colonies. He characterized the American Jews' reception of the refugees as "the gloomiest chapter in the history of the American Jewish community."  He was determined that America would appreciate the fullness of their miseries and join him to champion their cause.
"They have the bones and sinew that are needed to build a peaceful, thrifty citizenry," he wrote in the American Israelite, August 8, 1881. "They have been trained through a life of labor, as well as a sphere of thoughts and morals. All they need is Þrst hand encouragement that shall set them on their feet in their new environment." 
Even as he wrote his editorial, he had deÞnite ideas as to where the refugees' feet should be set -- Kansas. It was his idea, his project, the Þrst Western Kansas Jewish settlement. He and his followers looked the country over and decided on Kansas. The land was waiting.
with permission of Gertrude Harris, widow of the author, December 2001.
NOTE: Numbers in brackets refer to footnotes for this text; footnotes
are numbered separately by chapter and published at the end of the work.