An unassuming cardboard box, safe after its postal journey up the east coast, sits on a table in the archive room of Stockton’s Library.
“It’s full of gold,” said Tom Kinsella, professor of British Literature and director of the South Jersey Culture and History Center (SJCHC).
The gold is in the form of 19th century tax forms, land deeds, documents, photographs and articles, all from the settlers of North America’s first Jewish settlement, Alliance Colony, in southern New Jersey. The fragile documents are on loan to Stockton from a descendant of the colony for a project to curate an online museum to preserve the colony’s history.
Aurora Landman, an SJCHC intern and a 2017 Literature graduate, spent many hours mining the gold to rediscover stories of a colony that is in danger of being forgotten. She was awarded a Board of Trustees Distinguished Student Fellowship to implement the online museum with rooms focusing on farming, schools, influential people and unique documents.
“Alliance Colony was founded by a group of 42 Jewish families that emigrated in 1882 to escape the Russian pogroms and find refuge in farm life in America,” explained Landman.
Over the past year, Landman, of Freehold, N.J., worked with Kinsella to digitize the last remaining traces of the colony, weaving together pieces of history to reveal the close-knit colony that slowly faded as later generations began choosing college over farming.
“As I went through century-old documents, photographs and articles, I scanned the artifacts, both electronically and mentally, for pieces that could help in the creation of the colony’s online museum,” said Landman.
Alliance Colony included Alliance, Norma and Brotmanville. With a photograph of the Norma baseball team and three yearbooks from the Norma School, she was able to flip back the pages of history to meet the young people of the colony.
A message in a tin that was kept in a cornerstone of an early temple captures the essence of the colony’s existence. Translated from Hebrew, the note reads, “God promised us a new beginning in a new land.”
Each artifact contributes to the full scope of the colony and the many stories of its founders and their descendants, helping her to draw a more complete picture of the history.
In 1984, the New York Times reported, “All of the Jewish agricultural colonies in South Jersey, including Woodbine and the historic Alliance colonies – Alliance, Brotmanville and Norma – are in grave danger of extinction.”
Landman’s work promises to end that danger of extinction.
When explaining her project, she said, “It called to me.”
All of her diverse interests converged as she curated the online museum. Her love of learning, passion for reading stories from the past, knowledge of the Russian language from a high school course and pride in her own family heritage strengthened her commitment to the project.
“Today what is left are the landmarks and the few family members that are holding onto their faith and family history,” said Landman.
With the box of gold on loan in Stockton’s archive room, her creativity and a bit of detective work, Landman has built upon the surviving materials.
“I’m using documents and artifacts as a skeleton, while writing and filling in history as the meat that keeps the memory of this colony alive and thriving,” she said.
Stockton’s Sam Azeez Museum of Woodbine Heritage contains a rich history of the wave of Russian Jewish immigration to South Jersey in the late 19th century as Russian and Eastern European Jews fled persecution in their homelands. The Alliance Colony online museum will further extend history’s reach.