Jews, who for many years were not allowed the privilege of farming in Europe, were among the first groups to establish agricultural settlements in western Canada. Their arrival coincided with a period of active immigration: Canada wanted to populate the west, and many of the Jewish newcomers, inspired by the “back to the land movement,” wanted to farm. With land as the incentive as well as immigration propaganda and improved services, the Department of the Interior admitted people not only from the United States and Great Britain, the preferred countries, but from continental Europe as well. Jews, who at other times in Canadian history were subjected to many restrictions, were also welcomed then. However, unlike several groups including the Mennonites who were encouraged to settle blocs of land, the government ruled that the Jews could not do so: they had to be interspersed with their non-Jewish neighbours.
The first attempt at Jewish farm colonization in Canada took place after a public outcry against the 1881 Russian pogroms. At that time, Sir Alexander T. Galt, Canadian High Commissioner in London, convinced Sir John A. Macdonald that assisting several hundred impoverished Jews to emigrate from Russia to Canada would be advantageous to both the refugees and to Canada. In May 1882, the future pioneers arrived in Montreal; 247 were sent to Winnipeg. When the government finally allocated land for them in 1884, only two-fifths of the original group remained. Twenty-six families formed the settlement of New Jerusalem, near the town of Moosomin. Ill fortune dogged the settlers, and the colony collapsed just five years later after a disastrous fire destroyed their crop of hay.
Between 1886 and 1907 two groups of Jews founded the Wapella settlement, north of Wapella: one group included John Heppner, from Russia, who was sponsored by Anglo-Jewish financier Herman Landau; and the other included Abraham Klenman and his son-in-law Solomon Barish. Klenman and Barish, who came from Bessarabia, financed themselves. In 1892 the Young Men’s Hebrew Benevolent Society of Montreal, in an effort to cope with other Jewish refugees of the Russian pogroms, founded the Hirsch colony, about 25 km east of Estevan. The Jewish Colonization Association took over its supervision six years later. The Lipton colony was first settled by Jews from Romania in 1901, and later joined by Jews from Russia; it was Canada’s only attempt to delegate to government officials the founding and administration of a Jewish agricultural settlement. The Jewish Colonization Association assisted the government in this operation. The Edenbridge colony near Gronlid, northeast of Melfort, grew naturally, the result of chain migration as emigrants followed the footsteps of their friends and relatives. Two separate groups, one from South Africa but originally from Lithuania, and the other from London, England, founded Edenbridge in 1906. Later, Jews from New York State joined them.
Also in 1906, three Galician Jewish teenagers, Philip Berger, Israel Hoffer and Majer Feldman, graduates of the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural College of Slobodka Lesna, helped to establish the Jewish farm settlement of Sonnenfeld, originally known as New Herman, approximately 80 km west of Estevan. Until the end of World War II, many Jewish farmers were scattered throughout Saskatchewan. Some farmed individually while the remainder farmed in small settlements or in the larger colonies. For example, Jacob Pierce paid his $10 entry fee for the southeast quarter of 34-2-2 west of the second meridian on September 26, 1892, and received his patent on October 23, 1901; he and his sons, the first Jews to pioneer in the Oxbow area, were soon followed by others. Alsask, also known as Eyre, on the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan, was founded in 1910; nearby was Montefiore, another Jewish colony on the Alberta side of the border. Although some of the settlers both in Alsask and Montefiore first farmed in the United States, most originally came from Russia. For example, Max Feinberg’s application for an Alsask homestead states that his previous occupation was farmer, his last place of residence was Denver, Colorado, and his place of birth was Russia.
The very gradual demise of the Jewish farm settlements was caused by many factors including drought, the “Dirty Thirties,” economic depression, and World War II; this was followed by the mechanization of farm equipment, the need for ever-larger tracts of land, unfavourable weather conditions, plagues of insects and crop diseases, more children acquiring higher education and moving away from home, and the desire to live in larger Jewish centres. In spite of all these adverse conditions, there are a few descendants of the original settlers who still either farm or own the original homestead and rent out the land. Their ties to farming remain strong.