History and Progress
The property now managed by Yiddish Farm has a long history as a Jewish farm and a deep connection to the Yiddish language. It was bought in the early 1940s by Helen and Jerome Jochnowitz, Yiddish-speaking Jews that had fled Poland before World War II. Helen and Jerome purchased the farm from a German Jewish family with the intention of turning the farm into a Jewish agricultural training center. Although this particular dream did not materialize, the Jochnowitz family put the land to use in other ways. They grew onions and potatoes, turned it into a dairy and grew hay. They used the property as a vacation home, a full-time home, and as a bungalow colony.
The Yiddish language has played many different roles on the farm. For Helen and Jerome, it was the language of their birth. They spoke Yiddish with one another and with friends and family. In the 1960s and 1970s, the farm became a bungalow colony for Yiddish-speaking Chabad Hasidim. Helen and Jerome’s son, Dr. George Jochnowitz, is a retired linguist with a special interest in Jewish languages. He has launched two Yiddish linguistic research projects that are connected to the farm. In the 1970s, George studied the Yiddish language patterns that he observed among the Chabad families that spent their summers at the farm and published his research based on them. In another study, George interviewed some of the last surviving speakers of a rare dialect of Western Yiddish that had been preserved by German Jewish cattle farmers in the area. Dr. Jochnowitz’ home on the farm gave him the opportunity to interview and record this dialect.
After the 1970s, the bungalow colony closed, and the tenant farmer that had been maintaining the dairy left. Some of the farm buildings collapsed, others were demolished, and the original farm house burned to the ground in 1983. Most of the farm’s twenty-five fields became overgrown, and the only remaining agricultural pursuit was hay-cutting in some of the larger fields.
In 2010, an annual Yiddish language retreat called Yiddish Vokh took place in Warwick, NY, 15 miles from the farm. Among the attendees at the retreat were Naftali Ejdelman, one of the founders of Yiddish Farm, and Eve Jochnowitz, a Yiddish teacher and organic food enthusiast, and the daughter of George Jochnowitz. Eve proposed her family’s property as a potential site for the fledgling Yiddish Farm Education Center and brought Naftali to see the site. Partnering with Yiddish Farm provided a unique opportunity to materialize the original vision of Helen and Jerome Jochnowitz: to turn the land into a center for Jewish agricultural training. Because of the important role that Yiddish had always played at the farm, it was a beautiful way to come full circle.
Although the farm lacked basic infrastructure, its beauty, its proximity to existing Jewish communities and its size made it an attractive location for Yiddish Farm to become established and grow. Of the 227 acres on the property, there are 80 acres of tillable land, including approximately 15 acres of “Black Dirt” soil, a fertile soil rich in organic matter and prime for allium cultivation. The black dirt fields had been used to grow hay, but they were poorly drained and hadn’t been plowed in years. In addition to black dirt, the farm has two hay-fields, a former corn field and a cow pasture, totaling roughly 28 acres.
Yiddish Farm was formally founded on December 12, 2010, at a conference in the Stanton Street Synagogue in New York City. Thanks to early grants from the Naomi Prawer Kadar Foundation, the Benyumen Shekhter Foundation for the Advancement of Standard Yiddish, The Chaim Schwartz Foundation, and the Aaron and Sonia Fishman Foundation for Yiddish Culture, Yiddish Farm was able, in 2011, to pilot a three-week advanced Yiddish immersion program on at the Pearlstone Center, a Jewish retreat center and farm in Maryland, as well as an outdoor Jewish cultural festival on the Yiddish Farm itself.
By the summer of 2012, fields were cleared, disked, plowed, irrigated and planted and Yiddish immersion programs were launched for beginners and advanced students. Since Yiddish Farm only had access to one of the buildings on the property, students slept in tents and caravans. They spent part of the time learning Yiddish grammar, vocabulary and literature and part of their time working the land. The program was staffed by volunteers and friends. In addition to the Yiddish-immersion courses, Yiddish Farm ran a day-program for a group of Hasidic children, an overnight for a pluralistic Jewish summer camp and a weekend festival. During the fall, a four-weekend Yiddish program was held and a multi-part environmental education program was held in Yiddish for students in a local Hasidic yeshiva. This included a composting workshop, and hands-on farming experiences. By the end of 2012, several acres of garlic had been planted, and a tractor had been leased.
In 2013 over three acres of land were cleared around the main farm buildings in order to expand usable space for farming and programming, and a new parking lot was constructed. In order to expand the farming operations, a chicken coop and a barn were built. Many new programs were launched, including Jewish holiday programming, Yiddish Farm Open House days and Chol Hamoed programs. The farm produced matzo, garlic, and vegetables and raised sheep, geese, and chickens.
In 2014, Yiddish Farm expanded its Yiddish-immersion programs to run all year. This included a winter program in partnership with Columbia University, a spring break program, a and series of beginners programs. With the help of the USDA and GrowNYC, Yiddish Farm received funding to build a washing station and a greenhouse, as well as a grant designed to help Yiddish Farm apply cover crop in a way that preserves the soil.
2015 was a year of improvement and growth. Generous donor support allowed us to beautify our facilities and we broke ground on our Indie-Go-Go/USDA funded drip tape irrigation system. We had a stellar shmura harvest, including close to 2000lbs of shmura wheat and 1000lbs of shmura spelt. We were selected to receive the highly competitive Value Added Producer Grant from USDA Rural Development wing. This grant allowed us to expand our marketing and matzo production for Passover 2016.
In 2016 we completed our irrigation project in the upper field and, with the help of a generous donation, began planting blueberries. We have over 50 blueberry bushes planted. We sold over 1000 lbs of matzo. We also replaced our aging combine and had another amazing harvest. Over 1000+ children visited the farm over the summer.
In 2017 we raised enough money to finish our granary and officially moved our grain processing out of the green bungalow! Our new facility contributed to a stellar harvest of shmura grain, giving us more than enough space to clean, dry and store our wheat and spelt (Under the supervision of Rabbi Yecheil Steinmetz). We hosted over 2,300 visitors for interactive farm tours and over 25 people participated in our Yiddish summer program. We began producing Honey Cookies (CRC) and in the fall we planted 300 blueberry bushes.
For 2018 we look to continue our fundraising efforts to build an on-farm matzo bakery. We are looking forward to great programing and an exciting harvest!