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