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Mazkeret Batya: The Inspiring Story of an Early Jewish Settlement

The background to the late 19th-century Jewish settlements in Israel was a wave of pogroms in Russia in 1881. This made most of Russian Jewry realize they had no future there. Of the two million Russian Jews who left Russia over the next few decades, 90% came to America. But a small portion went to Israel.

Historians characterize the first wave of these Russian Jewish settlements, from 1882-1903, as “The First Aliyah.” The settlements from 1904-14 are referred to as “The Second Aliyah.”

A misconception is that all the early settlements were founded by secular Jews. The Second Aliyah was mainly a secular one. But with regard to the First Aliyah, almost all of the settlements were established by Orthodox Jews. A fascinating book came out in 2012, “Rebels in the Holy Land: Mazkeret Batya: An Early Battleground for the Soul of Israel,” by Sam Finkel. This book tells the story of one of these early settlements founded by Orthodox Jews from Russia, and of what happened in the shemitah year of 1888-1889.

This is a must-read book. It is extremely well-documented with extensive photographs. A revised edition came out in 2015. I am now going to summarize its story.

In 1882, a few Orthodox Jews in a small town in Russia were presented with a proposal. Baron Edmond de Rothschild was willing to support their establishment of a farming colony in Eretz Yisrael. These Jews were already farmers in Russia. These men agreed to separate from their families for a long period and travel to Eretz Yisrael and start from scratch. They ended up establishing the sixth Jewish agricultural settlement. It was initially named Ekron, but a few years later Rothschild renamed the settlement Mazkeret Batya, in memory of his mother.

Like all books, this book has heroes and villains. The heroes are Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, Yechiel Brill and Rothschild.

Rabbi Mohilever, from Poland, was very concerned about the mass exodus to America due to its lack of Torah environment. In 1882 he organized a society whose goal was for Jews to take concrete steps to establish a presence in Eretz Yisrael.

In the summer of 1882 he traveled to Western Europe to garner support. He first visited Vienna and Germany. Then he took some time off to relax at a spa.

Journalist Yechiel Brill happened to be at this spa. After the pogroms of 1881, Brill began writing about the idea of sending professional Jewish farmers to colonize Eretz Yisrael. Brill urged Rabbi Mohilever to send a group of experienced Jewish farmers there to build farms and infrastructure, and then send for their families later.

With Brill’s help, Mohilever was able to arrange a meeting with Rothschild. Mohilever wrote a detailed description of the meeting and the dvar Torah he gave. Mohilever wrote that the dvar Torah was able to break down the initial coldness of Rothschild, and Rothschild agreed that if a few farmers would be willing to come to Eretz Yisrael, he would be willing to help them financially.

In the first edition of Finkel’s book, he wrote that the meeting with Mohilever led to a major shift in Rothschild’s thinking, and that prior to this Rothschild had not been supportive of the idea of colonizing Palestine. In the revised edition of this book, based on a scholar’s additional research, he writes that Rothschild was already planning to build colonies even before he met with Mohilever.

Over the next several decades, Rothschild ended up providing significant financial support not only to this group but also to many of the other early Jewish settlements.

For this initial attempt, the agreed-upon plan was for 10 Russian farmers to be selected and then trained at the Mikveh Israel agricultural school, which had opened in 1870. After the training, Rothschild would help the farmers acquire their own land. The potential historic impact of the venture was obvious to all. If successful, it would serve as a model for future colonies in Eretz Yisrael for the oppressed Jews of Russia. Shortly thereafter, 10 farmers from the town of Pavlovka were selected. On Parshat Lech Lecha in 1882 a contract was signed, outlining everyone’s obligations.

Brill agreed to accompany the men to Eretz Yisrael, temporarily abandoning his family. He felt obligated to ensure that the 10 men made their transition safely. When he arrived at the train station, 11 men appeared! The added man was one who had left farming and had become a melamed. He was not someone that Brill would have chosen. But the 10 needed him along so that they could correspond with their families, as they did not know how to write.

The journey was a long one, and many challenges arose along the way. After many complications, they were successful in entering Eretz Yisrael.

One villain in this book is a man named Shmuel Hirsch. He was the head of the Mikveh Israel agricultural school. He continually made things difficult for the farmers, including feeding them bread that was only fit for animals! He was from Western Europe and was not Orthodox. He could not relate to these Orthodox Jews from Russia and was not interested in the grand plans that Brill, Mohilever and Rothschild had for these men.

Brill eventually received a letter from his family in Mainz. His wife had not been able to pay the rent for six months. His creditors had confiscated his printing press and the housewares. His children had been expelled from school because of failure to pay tuition. His daughter and his wife were in need of medical care. Shortly thereafter, in 1883, he was forced to return to his family.

Meanwhile, the farmers needed a plot of land and Hirsch was not making proper efforts to find one. The men were threatening to return to Russia. Rothschild sent a telegram that he did not want these men to return to Russia under any circumstances. He realized that if these experienced farmers returned to Russia, no Jew from Russia would ever think of doing something like this in Eretz Yisrael again.

Eventually, Hirsch let the Russians search for their land by themselves and they found a barren piece of land that was suitable for their needs near the Arab village of Aqir. Since they were not Ottoman citizens, the land could not be registered in their names. It was registered in the name of a French citizen and later transferred to Rothschild. In November of 1883, they finally began to plow on this land.

The book continues with the story of what happened in the shemitah year of 1888-1889. The settlers of Mazkeret Batya felt obliged to let the land rest. They were relying on the psak of the rabbis from the Old Yishuv in Jerusalem. But Rothschild and his men supervising the settlement had different ideas. They wanted the land to be worked in some way and wanted the settlers to rely on the permissive ruling granted by Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor of Lithuania. A large portion of the book deals with the conflict that ensued and the difficulties that the settlers faced when they stood their ground.

I have only given a very brief summary, but it is very inspiring to learn about the hard work and struggles of these early Jewish pioneers.


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