Isaac Newton’s Map of the Apocalypse

Isaac Newton, who possessed one of the greatest scientific minds in human history, had some fascinating views on the End of Days. His vision even linked the apocalypse to the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland.

So then the mystery of this restitution of all things is to be found in all the Prophets: which makes me wonder with great admiration that so few Christians of our age can find it there. For they understand not that ye final return of ye Jews captivity & their conquering the nations (of ye four Monarchies) & setting up a peaceable righteous & flourishing Kingdom at ye day of judgment is this mystery. 

—Isaac Newton, Of ye Day of Judgment & World to Come

How does one bridge the gap between science and faith? In 1795, the English poet and artist William Blake created one of his most iconic paintings. Its subject was the English physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton (1642–1727), one of the greatest scientists in all of history. Blake defined Newton as one of the fathers of rational thought. However, make no mistake, the painting was not complimentary of its subject. Blake painted Newton at the bottom of the ocean, immersed in measurements and calculations and ignoring the world around him.

The modern image of Newton is perhaps not so far from Blake’s somewhat mocking representation. After all, the first image that generally comes to mind when one mentions the name “Newton”, is that of a rationalist scientist so preoccupied with his theoretical musings that it took an apple dropping on to his head to bluntly remind him that there was indeed a real, tangible world to be contended with. In the popular imagination, Newton’s apple was responsible for sparking his mission to formulate the universe’s physical laws.

Despite this stigma, it seems that few, including Blake, were familiar with Newton’s mystical and esoteric writings. The collector Abraham Shalom Yahuda purchased these manuscripts in 1936, which were deposited, along with the rest of his collection, at the National Library of Israel in 1969. Many of the writings are digitally accessible through the Library’s website, and reveal a completely different side of Newton’s world.

Isaac Newton by William Blake (1795)

In Jewish tradition, the End of Days is not generally a common topic of discussion or study. Indeed, the Day of Judgment is mentioned only briefly in some of the apocryphal books (ancient texts that were not included in the Bible), although over the course of Jewish history, the issue did occasionally surface during darker periods, which brought with them episodes of messianic revival. Nevertheless, the belief in the destruction of the existing world and the creation of a new one in its stead does not occupy a central place within Judaism. On the contrary, Jews are commanded to preserve the existing world. In Christianity, on the other hand, the apocalyptic vision in the New Testament describes the End of Days with chilling accuracy. The Book of Revelation (also called the Apocalypse of John), the last book of the New Testament, describes the exact geographic location where the final and decisive war in history, known as Armageddon, will take place. Apologies for the spoiler.

Newton believed in the unequivocal, divine origin of the Bible. He devoted his time not only to clarifying the laws of nature, but also to searching for the essence behind them. The scientific motivation to comprehend the world and explain it was also what pushed him to seek understanding of reality’s more esoteric secrets, as well as any religious meaning that lay behind them.

One of Newton’s main pursuits in this respect was calculating the exact time and location of the end of the world. Among the seemingly vague chapters of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, Newton sought accurate prophecies for the future of the world and the redemption of the human souls living in it. It is important to understand that at the time Newton formulated his great scientific theories, modern science had not yet completely abandoned the esoteric and religious sources from which it had developed.

Already in his early theological writings, Newton invested much interpretive energy in deciphering John’s apocalyptic revelation. Among other things, he hoped to discover the exact location where the events that would lead to the End of Days would begin. Not satisfied with theoretical research and written interpretation, the scientist even attached a map that indicates precisely the area expected to be the focus of the Day of Judgment to one of his essays on the subject. We will come back to this map, created some 300 years ago, and the many notes scribbled in its margins, which hold an abundance of multidisciplinary information.

Newton’s map of the apocalypse. Click for a closer look. View the full manuscript here.

John’s Revelation tells of the sounding of seven trumpets, each of which heralds a different apocalyptic event. Because Newton did not believe that the end of the world would come in his lifetime, he did not define the location of the seventh and final trumpet sounding. What he did mark on the map were the events leading up to the End of Days; that is, the sounding of the fifth and sixth trumpets (Revelation 9). Newton understood the fifth trumpet to be the rise of Arab Islam. And the sixth – the rise of the Ottoman Empire, which Newton believed was sent by God to punish sinful Christians and finally destroy the remnants of the corrupt Roman Empire, that is, the Byzantine Empire.

And where, according to Newton, do the end time events take place? Why, right here, in our own cozy little neighborhood known as the Middle East, where else? With great precision, Newton identified four provinces: Asia (the city of Konya, in modern day Turkey), Syria (the city of Damascus), Mosul (in Iraq), and Meyafarikîn (today the city of Silvan, also in modern Turkey). To each he assigned one of the four angels of the apocalypse liberated from the Euphrates River during the sixth trumpet event (Revelation 9: 14). According to John’s vision, the departure of the four angels of the apocalypse to sow destruction and devastation throughout the world precedes the coming of the mysterious beast—mentioned in the book as one of the initiators of doomsday—and symbolizes the final battle.

Given the starting point of the angels of the apocalypse according to Newton, one area stands out for its absence from his map. This is Mount Megiddo, which in the Greek translation became Armageddon, later taking root in Christian tradition as the name for the Judgment Day event itself. Megiddo is mentioned in the Bible several times, often in the context of an important battle (remember the story of Yael and Sisera? That happened nearby), but only in Christianity is it incorporated into the vision of the end of days. According to Revelation, the final battle between the forces of evil, led by the beast, and the forces of good commanded by God, will take place at Mount Megiddo. In this battle, the wicked will be defeated, after which the kingdom of heaven will reign over the earth.

Newton provides a historical example for the connection between the forces of evil and divine providence. In a note scribbled on the map’s margins, Newton discusses two military leaders of the forces of evil: one is Saladin (1138–1193), who expelled the last of the Crusaders from the Holy Land, and the other is Genghis Khan (1162–1227), whose Mongol hordes appeared from the East, and sowed destruction and devastation across much of the world. Newton perceived the rise of the two conquerors as the intervention of divine providence.

The first page of Newton’s essay to which he added the Judgment Day map. Click here for a closer look.

Newton’s manuscripts preserved at the National Library of Israel offer an intriguing glimpse into aspects not widely known about this venerated scientist, notably his interest in alchemy and his systematic attempt to recreate the divine prophecy that had been lost since biblical times; that is, to understand the prophecies handed down by the Hebrew prophets. Albert Einstein made the case for the significance of these documents clearly in a letter to his friend, the collector and Middle East expert Abraham Shalom Yahuda, in 1940. Einstein elucidated for Yahuda the importance of collecting and making Newton’s theological and alchemical writings available for study, emphasizing that these writings open an unprecedented window into the man’s work. Einstein wrote:

While the formative development of Newton’s lasting physics works must remain shrouded in darkness, because Newton apparently destroyed his preparatory works, we do have in this domain of his works on the Bible drafts and their repeated modification; these mostly unpublished writings therefore allow a highly interesting insight into the mental workshop of this unique thinker.

From the theological records preserved in the Library, it is clear that like a number of 17th-century Protestant commentators, Newton also believed that the end of the world was encrypted in the text of the Bible. The thousands of carefully hand-written pages are evidence of the devotion of one of human history’s greatest minds to the solving of this riddle. As hinted in the quotation which appears at the beginning of this article, the return of the Jews to Zion was a central part of the Newtonian vision.


Browse through Isaac Newton’s theological manuscripts, preserved at the National Library of Israel, here.


Before Liberation: Mourning the Holocaust in 1945

As the camps still operated in Europe, a call from Jerusalem to remember the victims and help the survivors was heeded across the globe...

Nearly two months before these men and thousands like them were liberated from the camps, the global Jewish community united to mourn the fate of European Jewry and organize efforts to help the survivors (Photo: George Mallinder / National Archives and Records Administration via United States Holocaust Memorial Museum / Public domain)

In March 1945, the Allied victory was all but palpable, though carnage still raged across Europe. Auschwitz had been liberated at the end of January, yet almost all other major Nazi death camps were still operational.

Germany was desperate and knew defeat was on its way. The Wehrmacht began enlisting 15- and 16-year old boys. The same month saw the last major German offensive of the war, which soon ended in failure. Hitler paid his last visit to the front, promising that “new weapons” were on their way. They never came.

In his last public appearance before going into hiding and later killing himself, the despot awarded medals to members of the Hitler youth.

Shortly after the appearance, Winston Churchill made a brief yet powerfully symbolic crossing of the Rhine.

Winston Churchill steps ashore onto the east bank of the River Rhine, 25 March 1945 (Imperial War Museum / Public domain)

Yet across the Jewish world, the all-but-incalculable toll of the Holocaust was increasingly calculated. Understood. Internalized.

One-third of all Jews in the world had been massacred.

On March 5, a gathering took place at the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem, deemed “the greatest Jewish synod to be held in the Holy City in modern times” by The Palestine Post, which reported that:

“… all the rabbis in Palestine assembled in conclave, from town and settlement, Sephardi religious leaders in their flowing oriental robes, side by side with Hassidic rabbis, among them the heads of the famous Sadagora dynasty, and rabbis from Europe who had found shelter here from Nazi persecution…”

Sitting on the ground and unable to hold back their tears, the esteemed and diverse group of rabbinical leaders recited prayers and read from the Book of Lamentations. They chanted the Mourner’s Kaddish and blew the shofar seven times – a rare, dramatic act in Jewish tradition – before walking together to pray at the Western Wall.

Months prior to the gathering, well before the Red Army reached Auschwitz, Rabbi Hizkiyahu Yosef Mishkovsky drafted a proposal, which he sent to leading figures in the Land of Israel, including prominent rabbinical organizations and the Jewish Agency. Mishkovsky himself was a leader of Polish Jewry who had come to the Land of Israel at the turn of the 20th century, yet remained in close contact with the communities of Poland and Lithuania, often traveling back and forth before the war. He was also a leader of the Jewish Agency’s Rescue Committee, founded in 1942 with the goal of working to save European Jewry during the Holocaust.

Mishkovsky’s proposal recommended organizing a gathering of rabbis to focus on working to salvage what was left of European Jewry, while also grieving for its destruction by means of a seven-day mourning period and a permanent annual day of mourning and fasting.

Perhaps the most influential recipient of Mishkovsky’s proposal was Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of the Land of Israel, who soon thereafter hosted some fifty leading rabbis in his Jerusalem home to further discuss these recommendations.

Letter dated 24 Tevet (9 January 1945) inviting Rabbi Eliyahu Mordechai Wolkowski to a meeting at Rabbi Herzog’s home to discuss “establishing a fast day and days of… lamentations over millions of our brothers…” From the Eliyahu Mordechai Wolkowski Archive, National Library of Israel

The group declared that the Jews of Mandatory Palestine must open their homes to the survivors and that special efforts must be made to locate and save Jewish children hidden away in monasteries across Europe, ensuring that they come to the Land of Israel as soon as possible and, no less important, that they receive traditional Jewish education. Moreover, they declared that a national “Yahrzeit” (memorial day) for the millions of victims must be proclaimed.

This meeting laid the foundation for the March 5th assembly at the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem. It was then that Chief Rabbis Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel and Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, and the others present, called for a week of mourning throughout the Land of Israel, and “wherever these words reach,” to begin on March 8th and culminate with a fast day on March 14. They requested that during the week of mourning the public refrain from activities of leisure and entertainment, and that on the fast day itself, Jewish businesses and transportation would stop, as people dedicated time in synagogue and at home to mourn the victims.

Paralleling the famous words of biblical prophecy, the rabbis’ declaration “went forth from Zion” and – quite remarkably – Jewish communities across the globe adopted it, as did the Jews of Mandatory Palestine, religious and secular alike.

The act of Jewish solidarity was all but unprecedented in the annals of modern history, driven by rabbis who by today’s standards would be considered Religious Zionist and Ultra-Orthodox, yet also being decisively adopted by the secular Zionist establishment and non-Orthodox movements globally.

From the capital of the Soviet Union, the Jewish Community Council of Moscow publicly expressed its observance of the week of mourning and the fast day, going so far as to also notify remaining Jewish communities and organizations across Europe about the initiative. The move in Moscow was hailed as historic and encouraging by Jews outside of communist controlled Eastern Europe.

Headline published in The Sentinel on March 22, 1945; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection. Click the image to read the complete article

The Synagogue Council of America, the umbrella group bridging the three major Jewish movements in the United States, called for all of the country’s Jews to join in the communal mourning.

Survivors in Romania and Greece joined the international initiative.

Many communities throughout the British Empire – from Canada to South Africa to Australia – ignored the objections of their own chief rabbi, Joseph Hertz, one of few major contemporary Jewish leaders to oppose the initiative, and decided to mark the week of mourning with their coreligionists worldwide.

Even Jewish soldiers in the British Army stationed in Tripoli made plans to fast and observe the week of mourning by voluntarily confining themselves to their barracks, while in Mandatory Palestine, Jewish sailors in the Royal Navy attended a memorial service to mark the day.

The British High Commissioner for Palestine and Transjordan himself, Lord Gort, personally received the declaration from the chief rabbis, who also sent it via telegram to Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, imploring them to not only remember the victims but also to allow the survivors to immigrate to the Land of Israel.

Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at the Yalta Conference, February 1945 (National Archives and Records Administration / Public domain)

While the “Big Three” were busy overseeing the ongoing war efforts across Europe and in the Pacific, Lord Gort was receptive to the declaration, letting the rabbis know that he would send it along to London. He also ordered that Jewish officials throughout Mandatory Palestine would be released from their duties on the fast day.

In fact, commemoration of the fast day in British Mandatory Palestine was quite extensive, including a stoppage of work and traffic, and a complete “internal curfew” from 9am to 11am.

Jewish police officers and schoolchildren donated money on the day to a rescue fund for Holocaust survivors.

The flags at the Jewish Agency building and the Polish consulate were flown at half-mast.

Even the major cities largely observed the somber day, as reported in The Palestine Post:

“A quiet self-discipline prevailed all through Jewish Palestine yesterday, the day of fast and voluntary curfew which ended the week of mourning for European Jewry… Jewish residential sections of Jerusalem and Haifa were deserted, and even children kept indoors… The usually crowded and bustling streets of Tel Aviv were hushed and in the evening shop windows were dark…”

There had been previous calls for international days of Jewish solidarity and fasting, including a declaration by Rabbis Herzog and Uziel, not long after the outbreak of the war. Yet nothing before (nor probably since) seemed to compare to the response elicited by the March 1945 initiative – which transcended virtually all boundaries and distinctions within the global Jewish community.

Perhaps the pain at the time was so raw and so real that Jews around the world – regardless of nationality or level of religious observance – were simply waiting for some sort of call to collective bereavement.

Some two months before the last camp was liberated, and six decades before the United Nations designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day, that call came from Zion.

Many thanks to Rabbi Shmuel Katz, leading scholar of the Israeli Rabbinate, for his assistance and expertise.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

The Forgotten Holidays of David Ben-Gurion

"Ingathering of the Exiles Day" - intended to make immigrant soldiers feel welcome - was one of a number of 'festivals' that helped form the national ethos...

David Ben-Gurion with soldiers at Sarafend, 1949. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein, all rights reserved to Pri-Or PhotoHouse; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

The State of Israel lacked many things during its first year of existence – peace and prosperity, food, economic stability, housing and basic infrastructure to name just a few.

National holidays, on the other hand, were plentiful!

Not holidays in the traditional celebratory sense; but rather holidays that were intentionally designed, declared and commemorated in order to achieve important national objectives under the complex circumstances and realities of the nascent Jewish state.

At the behest of David Ben-Gurion, these holidays were all imbued with deep symbolism – both timeless and timely.

David Ben-Gurion, 1949. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein, all rights reserved to Pri-Or PhotoHouse; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Symbolically and literally, the holidays largely centered around the army, which was responsible not only for defense, but also for immigrant absorption, educating the masses and instilling Zionist values.

As Israel’s prime minister and minister of defense, Ben-Gurion directly oversaw and commanded the army, paying particular attention to its role as a tremendously formative player in the country’s society and culture.

During the very first temporary ceasefire during the 1948 war, just a month after the official establishment of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the first such holiday, “Swearing in Day”, was celebrated throughout the country’s military bases and beyond.

“Heads of the Nation on Swearing in Day”. From the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Then came “State Day” on the anniversary of Theodor Herzl’s death, which featured Israel’s first official military parade.

During the festival of Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles), the country celebrated “Settlement Day”, emphasizing the army’s role in helping to fulfill the Zionist mission and dream of settling the land.

Then, during Hanukkah, which took place at the end of December 1948 and into January 1949, “Ingathering of the Exiles Day” was celebrated, emphasizing the importance of another central Israeli value: immigration.

The day’s name is decidedly more natural in Hebrew: “Yom Kibbutz Galuyot” – a clear reference to traditional Jewish texts describing the almost magical messianic period in which Jews will finally return to the Land of the Israel from the four corners of the earth. In one famous line from the Talmud, for example, Rabbi Yochanan claims that the day of the ingathering of the exiles is even greater than the day on which the heavens and the earth were created (Pesachim 88).

In some ways, the massive immigration to Israel during that time was truly no less than miraculous. Some 100,000 new arrivals had come over the course of just a few months.

Immigrants in Pardes Hanna, 1948. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein, all rights reserved to Pri-Or PhotoHouse; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

While the ideal of immigration was certainly an important value to emphasize and instill, the point of the day was also very practical.  The absorption of all of these immigrants was hardly going smoothly, especially in the army where successful absorption in the context of conflict could literally mean the difference between life and death.

With about a third of all combat soldiers in Israel’s War of Independence being fresh immigrants, their acceptance was critical to the success of the entire effort, yet in many cases those who had been born in Mandatory Palestine or had immigrated even just a few years prior looked down on the more recent immigrants in their midst.

They often had little empathy or compassion for the recently arrived Holocaust survivors, many of whom had actually enlisted while still in displaced persons camps in Europe. Immigrants from the Arab world were often considered inferior and barbaric due to the dramatic differences in culture and language.

Immigrants from North Africa, 1949. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein, all rights reserved to Pri-Or PhotoHouse; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Moreover, for diplomatic reasons Israel had largely refrained from emphasizing the fact that many of its soldiers had come from overseas.

By Hanukkah of that first year, the circumstances and needs were ripe for the new state and army to make efforts encouraging the acceptance and appreciation of its new immigrants, especially those fighting on the front.

“Ingathering of the Exiles Day” was largely born out of the realization of this need, and in fact, the immigrant soldiers were the focus of the holiday.

It was not incidentally scheduled to take place on Hanukkah, the most militarily heroic festival on the Jewish calendar.

“Ingathering of the Exiles Day” ceremonies and special events took place in communities across the country and were held on virtually every IDF base, as immigrant soldiers were invited to share their stories, and special materials were distributed in Hebrew, as well as their native languages.

A leaflet with poetry verses and some illustrations distributed by the IDF for the first “Ingathering of the Exiles Day”, 1949. From the National Library of Israel collections

At the official national ceremony, Ben-Gurion compared the diplomatic and military difficulties faced by the young country to the internal struggle of successful immigrant absorption.

The connection between the global Jewish people had never been stronger, he said, calling the immigrant soldiers, a “clear living manifestation” of that connection and pointing out that they had come from 50 countries across the world, from all ethnicities, tribes and socio-economic backgrounds.

“The connection between the nation and the Diaspora doesn’t recognize in our army distinctions between East and West. There are soldiers from the West, and there are from the East, Habash [Ethiopia], Burma, India and China. From East and from West all as one came to the army of liberation.”

Civilian institutions were also called upon to participate, with the goal of making every immigrant feel at home in their modern-ancient homeland.

At large ceremonies throughout the country, the nation’s leaders called upon the general public to invite immigrant soldiers to family Hanukkah parties, and – as possible – even to stay overnight in their homes.

This official IDF poster for the first “Ingathering of the Exiles Day”, conveys all of this spirit simply, yet powerfully:

Poster for “Ingathering of the Exiles Day”, January 1949 (Design: Yohanan Simon / IDF Culture Service). From the National Library of Israel Ephemera Collection. Click image to enlarge

Designed by artist Yohanan Simon, the poster depicts the new army and state as the center of gravity for Jews dispersed around the globe, featuring the words:

“And they will be brought to us from East to West, a great army to help the nation…”

Reverberating with prophetic Biblical connotations, the line comes from Hebrew poet laureate Hayim Nahman Bialik’s poem “LaMitnadvim Ba’Am” (“To the Volunteers Among the People”), a work known for its allegorical Maccabee references.

The poem, written by Bialik in Odessa in 1899, quickly became popular in the Zionist movement, with its stirring Hanukkah-infused call for national renewal, unity and settlement of the Land of Israel.

It was put to music by a number of different composers in the early 20th century, recorded and sung at Zionist gatherings and events.

All of the poster’s elements – quite intentionally assembled – formed a message aimed at Israel’s citizens, especially its new immigrants.

Over the next year, 300,000 additional new arrivals would come from across the globe, and Israel’s second “Ingathering of the Exiles Day” would become known by another name: “The Day of the Million”, in celebration of the Jewish population surpassing one million people.

Celebrations that year took place across Israel and the Jewish world: from Los Angeles to Yemen, Romania to Libya, Australia and elsewhere, including aboard ships on their way to bring the next million new arrivals.

This ad for an “Ingathering of the Exiles” / “Day of the Million” celebration appeared in the Australian Jewish News on December 16, 1949; available as part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Two flights of immigrants from Yemen arrived at the airport and spirits were generally high at their welcoming party, though at least one report compared the festivities to “The Parade That Didn’t March”, as chaos reigned, with crowds of people squeezed together shouting, and government clerks “fighting like lions by the buffet to get a plate of food…”

A true familial homecoming!

Other reports, however, related a more civilized, if not heartwarming affair. A chapter from the Book of Ezekiel and poems by Natan Alterman and David Shimoni were recited, the Police Band played and Hanukkah candles were lit.

After thousands of years of exile, these immigrants were being welcomed home to ancient and modern words hearkening the “Return to Zion”.

Though the “Day of the Million” and the other Israeli holidays of 1948-1949 may be long forgotten, they all helped form the foundation of a national narrative and ethos upon which the young State of Israel could build, despite all that was lacking during those difficult early years.


A version of this article was originally published in Tablet Magazine. It appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

Thanks to Dr. Hezi Amiur, curator of the Israel Collection at the National Library of Israel, for his expertise and assistance.

This Remarkable Woman Made the First Israeli Flag in Jerusalem

Rebecca Affachiner trailblazed across multiple continents, and she did it all as a single, religious Jewish woman...

“I have waited my entire lifetime to see the rebirth of a Jewish state. I do not intend to miss it." Photo from the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel

Passionate, adventurous, attractive, well-educated, a cosmopolitan world traveler and a gifted organizer, Rebecca Affachiner led an unusual life in the early 20th century, as a single religiously observant Jewish woman who held many professional firsts, as a woman without children who was deeply involved in the life of children of all ages, and as a woman who traveled globally without a chaperone or companion.

Rebecca was born in Nesvizh (in present-day Belarus) in 1884 to the Sephardic Affachiner family who had lived there since the early 19th century.

Children stand outside the Great Synagogue in Nesvizh, early 20th century. From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Her father Yitzchak worked as a tailor until he immigrated to New York City in 1888. There he opened a tailoring store, which remained closed on Shabbat for all of his working life – almost unheard of at that time. After coming to New York in 1890, Rebecca and her siblings went to public school in 1890, where Rebecca developed a passion for reading. Rebecca bought a 2-volume collection of Emma Lazarus’s poetry, who became her heroine, and took it everywhere including to Jerusalem. She became skilled in writing and oral presentations, participated in debate from a young age.

Rebecca Affachiner as a young child with her family. From the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

Unusual for her time, she decided to train as a professional social worker and then enrolled in the new Teachers Evening Course at the Jewish Theological Seminary in December 1904.

While at JTS, she became quite friendly with Solomon and Mathilde Shechter, as well as with Henrietta Szold who was also a student there at the time, but it was Rebecca who became the first woman to graduate from JTS in 1907.

Solomon Schechter. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

In 1908, although not a rabbi, she became the Jewish chaplain at the Home for Delinquent Girls in Hudson, New York, and would undertake many initiatives to provide positive role models and support for underprivileged Jewish girls in New York, as well as combat efforts to proselytize.

Following Mathilde Schechter’s recommendation, Rebecca became superintendent of the Columbia Religious & Industrial School for Girls, where she worked for a number of years. Photo from the May 7, 1909 edition of The Hebrew Standard / National Library of Israel Digital Collection

After coming to a February 22, 1912 meeting organized by Henrietta Szold to create a formal Women’s Zionist organization, Rebecca became involved with the Federation of American Zionists, and, being more educated than most of her female contemporaries, Rebecca quickly became central to the group.

During World War I, Affachiner travelled to France as part of National Jewish Welfare Board efforts to provide support to Jewish soldiers. From the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

A few years later she became involved in a major American Zionist campaign to get President Harding to accept the Balfour Declaration. In 1921, when Chaim Weizman and Albert Einstein toured America on a well-known mission to encourage support of Zionism, she organized an event with them and raised $25,000 from her local community in Hartford, Connecticut, a princely sum at that time.

Albert Einstein and Chaim Weizmann, April 1921 (Bain News Service / Public domain via the Library of Congress)

The previous year, she had become superintendent Hartford’s United Jewish Charities, the first woman to hold such a senior role in any Jewish organization in America. She founded Jewish Big Brother and Big Sister chapters in the city and led countless other efforts to help those in need, including helping to organize a city-wide boycott of streetcar transport when the fare was raised to 10 cents a ride. The strike succeeded and the fare returned to 3 cents!

It is worth remembering that women were only given the right to vote in the United States in August of 1920.  Rebecca’s accomplishments came in an era when women’s rights were still severely restricted in many areas of their lives, including property ownership.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Rebecca traveled the world, partially for leisure and partially to help better understand where Jews could find safe haven.

After the United States severely restricted immigration in 1924, Rebecca and others saw both Mexico and Cuba as potential refuges. She even wrote a report on the Jewish situation in Cuba for Louis Marshall, the renowned jurist who headed the American Jewish Committee at the time.

Later, traveling through Italy on holiday, she had an audience with the Pope arranged through Catholic friends of hers and was even afforded the privilege of viewing rare Hebrew manuscripts in the Vatican Library. Rebecca arrived in Jerusalem two days before Tisha B’Av that year. In Jerusalem, she toured the newly founded Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus, as well as other sites, meeting with leading figures including Dr. Judah Magnes, the university’s first chancellor.

Rebecca Affachiner in Hartford, Connecticut where she was a leader in the Jewish community for a number of years. From the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

Upon her return to the United States, she lectured on Palestine and was soon hired by Hadassah to organize new chapters. In the late 1920s, Rebecca saw the Zionist movement as a major opportunity for Jews to create the new Jewish homeland after centuries in the Diaspora. She also recognized the need to create a dependable healthcare system with Hadassah Hospital as its touchstone.

In 1929, she beat four male candidates and was elected a delegate to World Zionist Congress in Zurich. Though she lacked the funds to actually attend, Rebecca continued to be very involved in Zionist activities. The same year, she became director of social services for the long-established Jewish community of Norfolk, Virginia, and would go on to found one of America’s first Jewish Community Centers there. The move also made her one of few Jewish professionals to have a major impact on communities in both the North and the South.

Just before moving to the Land of Israel from Norfolk in January 1934, Rebecca was interviewed on an American radio show broadcast on Christmas Day. Speaking of her wish to be a pioneer in the Land of Israel, Rebecca stated:

“There is no reason why three racial groups of different traditions and cultures cannot live harmoniously as a unit under one government”.

Rebecca quickly became involved in life in Jerusalem, working with Dr. Henry Keller to help to establish the Alyn Hospital for Handicapped Children, and serving as its director of social services.

As the Holocaust approached, she traveled to Romania and other places in Eastern Europe, working to encourage immigration to the Land of Israel, while back in Jerusalem she organized activities and initiatives to help get underprivileged children off the streets, much as she had done back in the United States.

This notice appeared in the September 18, 1939 edition of The Palestine Post. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Although connected to Recha Frier and Henrietta Szold of the official Youth Aliya movement, Rebecca felt the movement involved too slow a process and too much paperwork. In 1939, she herself organized and paid the expenses to bring a group of 20 Romanian youth to Israel on one of the last boats fleeing Europe before the war.

During the Holocaust she assisted Szold absorb refugees, including the “Children of Tehran”, and after the war she became increasingly involved with the International Red Cross, as she developed an important import business as a means of supporting herself.

Despite warnings from the American government to flee for safety, Rebecca and others like her stayed during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

“I cannot abandon my sisters and brothers,” she reportedly told a local newspaper at the time.

“I have waited my entire lifetime to see the rebirth of a Jewish state. I do not intend to miss it.”

Upon hearing that David Ben-Gurion had declared the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, Rebecca sewed and flew the first flag in Jerusalem on that day – having colored the blue stripes and Star of David on a sheet with a blue crayon!

Historian David Geffen coined Rebecca “The Israeli Betsy Ross” in his essay on American Jews in Israel, which was published in the New Encyclopedia of Zionism and Israel.

For the last years of her life, she would fly the flag every Israeli Independence Day.

As Rebecca became increasingly unwell in 1966, her good friend and caregiver Ezra P. Gorodesky slept on a chair in her living room for one month before she moved to a nursing home, where she passed away.

Prior to her death, she entrusted the flag to Ezra, making him promise to take good care of it because “it was my personal way of welcoming Israel into existence.”

After she passed away, Ezra P. Gorodesky donated the personal papers of Rebecca Affachiner to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, now part of the National Library of Israel.  There is also a Rebecca Affachiner Collection as part of the National Library’s Archives Department.

In 2018, Ezra donated the flag Rebecca made in 1948 to the Ben-Gurion Archives at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Ezra P. Gorodesky passed away in 2020.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

The Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.