Jewish History Blog
In Europe in the 19th century, there were three Jews whose wealth and social connections earned them a title of nobility: baron. Each of the three barons devoted their time, wealth, and efforts to help solve or at least alleviate the “Jewish problem” in Europe. But their tactics, aims and solutions were markedly different from one another.
Baron Edmond de Rothschild of France was a scion of the famous and fabulously wealthy Rothschild banking family. He was a traditional Jew, and in a most unlikely pairing, teamed up with Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, the rabbi of Bialystok and leader of the Chovevei Tzion (Lovers of Zion) organization. Rabbi Mohilever was interested in creating “colonies” for Jews in the Land of Israel, and until they became self-sufficient, the Baron was willing to foot the bills. Eventually there were thirty-nine such “colonies,” many of which have grown into major cities in Israel that still exist today.
Baron Rothschild was not a supporter of Theodore Herzl or the early Zionist movement. He refused to advance to Herzl the fifteen million dollars that he requested to “buy” the Land of Israel from the sick and corrupt Ottoman Empire. Yet, he invested much more money than that in building the colonies. His company, the Carmel Wine Corporation, was founded in 1882 and continues to be the leading wine producer in Israel until this day. He later gave the company to the farmers and vintners of the company who ran it as a cooperative venture. The Rothschild family contributed funds for the building of the Knesset building in Jerusalem, and there is a beautiful room in that building dedicated to the memory of the Baron. He was the great philanthropist behind the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland.
The second baron was Baron Moritz de Hirsch, who made his fortune in building railroads, especially in Russia for the Czar’s tyrannical government. Hirsch’s solution was also to establish colonies for Jewish agriculture, except he financed them everywhere in the world except the Land of Israel. He purchased land in South America, North America, and Africa and attempted to recruit thousands of Russian Jews to move to and populate those far flung locations. In the United States, he established agricultural communities in the Dakotas, Tennessee, and Vineland, New Jersey, among other places. Most of his projects failed because they did not prove economically viable, but a small Jewish community survives in Vineland until today. Vineland became famous as a center for raising chickens and distributing eggs. It also had vast asparagus farms.
Perhaps Baron Hirsch’s most lasting memorial is the large and magnificent synagogue named after him in Memphis, Tennessee. It is one of the largest Orthodox synagogues and communities in the United States. I have visited there many times and the Baron’s picture can be found in the lobby. Nevertheless, in spite of all of his efforts and expenditures of vast sums of money, his dream of Jewish farmers the world over did not materialize. The Baron was not a supporter of Herzl or of the Zionist movement, deeming its program to be too fanciful, unrealistic and impractical.
The third baron was Baron Horace Ginzburg. He was a resident of St. Petersburg in Russia and a person of significant influence there in the latter part of the nineteenth century. His bent was towards assimilating the Jewish population into the general Russian population. He believed that with secular education, the modification of Jewish dress, and acceptance of the Russian language and culture by the Jews of Russia, the “Jewish problem” would be solved. He was one of the prime movers in the building of the great synagogue building in St. Petersburg, a synagogue that the more observant Jews there shunned. I visited that synagogue a dozen years ago when I was in St. Petersburg for a few days immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Baron Ginzburg’s seat in the synagogue, row one, seat one, still has his name attached to it by a plaque on the back of the seat. I sat down in his seat. It was most uncomfortable. I wondered what the Baron would think of the “Jewish problem” today. Jewish life is thriving in the State of Israel, but it lay dormant for decades in his beloved Russia and St. Petersburg. As they say in Yiddish, “Mentsch tracht und Gott lacht.” “Man plans and G-d laughs.” He decides which plans work out and which don’t. That happens even when the people making the plans are barons.