|Directed by:||Richard Kroehling||Rating:||TV-PG|
|Release Date:||1983||Running Time:||51 mins.|
|More Info:||Brief History; Further Reading||Category:||America|
Utopia almost became a reality for one small Jewish community during the Depression, when President Roosevelt signed an order to re-settle New York City’s garment workers in the Jersey Homesteads. Roosevelt, New Jersey: Visions of Utopia explores the story of this independent, agricultural community of Jews, based on socialist principles and the belief that the country air would do a world of good for the urban poor.
“The essence of the plan was that garment workers from New York would leave the slums of New York and they would go over to New Jersey where they would have an idyllic setting in the countryside,” explained labor correspondent A.H. Raskin, declaring, “it would be a self-contained community and a Utopian existence for garment workers.”
It was the first town of its kind in the United States: a society designed by the visionary president to bring peace and country living to city-dwelling factory workers. Much anticipated by destitute factory workers in search of a better life, an abundance of workers lined up to complete application forms for the project. Together, they built the community from scratch. Muddy fields were swiftly transformed into pristine living spaces, with previously-unsettled lands now hosting avant-garde architecture.
Throughout the community, creativity and entrepreneurship flourished. “Labor organization was very vital to the creation of this town,” one resident explains in the film. Benjamin Brown, for instance, founded his own farm, which provided jobs for myriad residents. At the farm, he taught workers farming techniques that would one day help them found Israel with other like-minded people, dedicated to Jewish liberation and community-building.
Although Jersey Homesteads was typified by diligent workers, the residents also knew how to have fun. Every night there was a party that involved singing, delicious food, and sometimes a bonfire. The town’s atmosphere was friendly and family-oriented. One resident joked that mothers could send their children into the street, because they knew other families would happily provide them with a satisfying supper. “There was such freedom about friendship,” a woman resident boasted, “you could walk into people’s houses and just sit down and enjoy an evening; we loved it — life here was just wonderful.”
In the face of mounting anti-Semitism abroad, Jersey Homesteads represented hope for Jews everywhere.
But despite a promising beginning, the experiment ultimately failed when the federal government withdrew funding in 1939 in response to mounting tension in the community. “There were so many different points of view and that to us was humorous and at the same time delightful,” one original Homesteader says, but that once-humorous dissidence among community members became worrisome as time progressed, becoming “fantastic quarrels.”
“I think we learned that Utopias don’t seem to work out because people are not that unselfish,” one man laments. In the end, there were too many people who could not adequately contribute to the community’s financial needs and the price of living became too high.
The Jersey Homesteads experiment may not have been successful, but it was a historic endeavor of America’s Jewish community. The testimonies of the people who lived through it suggest that this type of living situation is possible and rewarding. If given more time, perhaps the residents could have reconciled their differences. In the end, Roosevelt, New Jersey wasn’t Utopia, but for a while there it came quite close.