Monmouth County’s Borough of Roosevelt, which has long been designated a historic district, now has a new marker celebrating its Jewish roots. And it didn’t cost the people of the town a single cent.
At the town’s annual July 4 picnic, Jerry Klinger, founder and president of the Rockville, Md.-based Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, presented the marker to the town council as a gift.
The new marker, made of anodized aluminum and situated near the borough’s elementary school and amphitheater, briefly describes the creation of Roosevelt, originally known as Jersey Homesteads. The community was launched as a planned Depression-era agro-industrial community specifically intended to give Jews an opportunity for a lifestyle different from what they had known in New York City.
Benjamin Brown, a Russian-Jewish immigrant who believed Jews would benefit from a return to the soil, is pictured on the marker. “He was the driving force behind the development of Roosevelt, and when he died in 1939, he was buried in the local cemetery,” said Klinger.
Brown championed “a just economic system — cooperative economics — and a freely controlled environment where Jewish culture could flourish,” said Klinger, adding, “Roosevelt was not the first place he tried to put these beliefs into practice.”
Some 25 years earlier, in 1911, Brown had tried to establish a similar colony called Clarion in the vicinity of Gunnison, Utah. That effort failed because of inadequate capitalization, weak leadership, environmental harshness, and the lack of a reliable water supply, Klinger told NJJN in a phone interview. Another factor was the inexperience of the participants — mostly urban Jews who knew little about agriculture.
During the Depression, as President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration launched close to 100 greenbelt initiatives to help small farmers and, at the same time, resettle urban dwellers who couldn’t find work in the cities, Brown saw another opportunity.
But similar woes were encountered at Jersey Homesteads, said Klinger. Within a few years, many of the area’s Jews abandoned farming for other pursuits, a clothing factory was beset by labor conflicts, and Brown was forced to step down as leader.
Nevertheless, the New Jersey community, which was renamed Roosevelt in 1945 shortly after FDR’s death, did succeed on some levels, Klinger said. “Societally, it was initially 98 percent Jewish, the only self-governing Jewish borough in America. It became a center of liberal and cultural arts, attracting writers, artisans and artists, intellectuals and educators. Architecturally, it was unique, with building designs influenced by the Bauhaus movement.”
The marker “is one of scores of similar markers that JASHP has placed in five countries — Great Britain, Germany, Surinam, Israel, and the United States. In the U.S., they may be found in 26 states,” Klinger added.
“Over seven million people annually see one of our projects and benefit from them,” said Klinger. “The purpose of the markers is to present and affirm the American-Jewish historical presence as part of the American experience. They are visible affirmations of American-Jewish historical legitimacy,” he said.
“The new marker helps enhance the significance of our town’s past, and the people here appreciate the generosity of JASHP in making it possible,” said Michael Ticktin, a Roosevelt council member and local historian.