Martin Jerome Weiss, an original settler of the New Deal Utopian farming and garment cooperative known as the Jersey Homesteads who later became one of Monmouth County, New Jersey's renowned Jewish poultry farmers, died in his Freehold Township home on Feb. 15 of multiple myeloma. He was 84.
Mr. Weiss got his start as poultry farmer and egg salesman in the early 1950’s when he joined Manalapan-based I. Kuschuk Poultry Farms, his immigrant father-in-law’s business. At that time, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, WWII refugees and Holocaust survivors who had settled in Central New Jersey had begun to create what became the most productive group of egg farms in the United States. At their peak, more than 1,200 of these farmers raised 16 million chickens yielding 240 million dozen eggs a year, according to Effie Robinson, a former official with the U.S. Farmers Home Administration.
During the next 20 years Mr. Weiss worked to build and modernize his family’s business. He helped sell the family’s 6,000 hens to Campbell’s Soup Company and began buying eggs in bulk from much larger poultry farms in Georgia and Alabama. Working closely with his brother-in-law, he automated and overcame a previously slow and labor intensive process through which their eggs were washed, candled, graded and packed. He signed up numerous supermarkets and restaurants as customers, with high-volume marquee accounts that included the Stage Deli and Key Food Supermarkets in New York. Most important, as the business grew, he helped create jobs for many local residents, and often drove them to and from work.
Mr. Weiss sold the family egg business in the early 1970’s and embarked on a new career -- selling and servicing residential and commercial heating, air conditioning and refrigeration systems to Monmouth and Ocean County’s rapidly growing population of homeowners and businesses.
Martin Weiss was born in New York City on December 23, 1929 at the start of the Great Depression, the first of two sons born to Polish immigrants Robert and Esther Weiss. He spent his early years in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn when his parents learned about a promising opportunity for a better and hopefully more prosperous life -- a planned manufacturing and agricultural colony in New Jersey for unemployed Jewish garment workers from New York City.
In 1936, Mr. Weiss’s family was among the first 12 to settle in the Jersey Homesteads, a New Deal community located on the edge of Millstone Township, NJ. The community was specifically designed to give Jewish workers a chance to escape city tenement life and improve their standard of living through subsistence agriculture and cooperative ownership of a community farm and a new garment factory.
Five hundred acres of the 1,200 acre Jersey Homesteads expanse were to be used for farming, and the remaining land for 200 houses on 1/2 acre plots, a community school, a factory building, a poultry yard and modern water and sewer plants. The first 200 families each posted a $500 bond for a simple cinder-block home with small bedrooms, a kitchen, living area and a bathroom. Rent was $12 per month.
The Jersey Homesteads, which was renamed Roosevelt in 1945 to honor FDR, was the only one of ninety-nine similar New Deal communities across the country created specifically for urban Jewish garment workers. ''The original residents were all Eastern European Jews, and the minutes of the first borough council were even taken in Yiddish,'' said former borough historian, Arthur Shapiro in a New York Times story about the town’s early days.
The Jersey Homesteads also became home to a number of recognized artists, including Ben Shahn. Shahn, himself an immigrant from Lithuania, painted in 1936 what is likely his best known fresco mural in the building which today houses the Roosevelt elementary school. The mural depicts a stream of Jewish immigrants, led by Albert Einstein (who was an early supporter and once a resident of the Jersey Homesteads), fleeing pogroms in Europe, coming to America, working in sweatshops, organizing unions, and finally settling in the Jersey Homesteads.
Mr. Weiss frequently shared his boyhood memories of watching Shahn create this nationally recognized masterpiece, and about how he ran errands and performed small tasks for the artist. He often spoke warmly of his life in the Jersey Homesteads, especially about his many close friends, the strong ties between families and the solid values and fabric that bonded the community and held it together, even after the community farm and coat factory had failed. He was especially proud of his Jewish heritage and of being among a group of pioneers intent on hard work to achieve their version of the American Dream.
In 1951 Mr. Weiss married Claire Kuschuk and went to live and work on his father-in-law’s farm. In 1963, he and Claire built a home in Freehold Township, NJ, where they raised their children and lived for the rest of their lives.
After retiring, Mr. Weiss dedicated himself to community service and a range of hobbies. He was a volunteer member of the Freehold First Aid and Emergency Squad, where he helped to raise funds and participated in local charitable events. He was a member of the Appalachian Trail Club where he worked to clear and improve hiking trails across parts of New Jersey and New York. He also taught and attended photography classes at Brookdale Community College.
Mr. Weiss attended Rutgers University and New York University. He was a graduate of Allentown (NJ) High School.
He was predeceased last September by his wife of 62 years, and in 2005 by his younger brother Harvey. He is survived by his daughter Roberta Weiss and son-in-law Isaac Kotlowicz of City Island, NY; his son and daughter-in-law Steven and Dara Weiss of Manhattan; and three grandchildren, Estelle Rose, Hannah and Elizabeth.
Those who wish to honor his memory may make donations to:
Bikur Cholim Committee
Congregation Sons of Israel
33 Gordon’s Corner Road
Manalapan Township, NJ 07726