American Jewish Women in Palestine: Bessie Gotsfeld, Henrietta Szold, and the Zionist Enterprise

By Shargel, Baila Round | American Jewish History, June 2002 | Go to article overview

American Jewish Women in Palestine: Bessie Gotsfeld, Henrietta Szold, and the Zionist Enterprise


Shargel, Baila Round, American Jewish History


Most Zionists who settled in Palestine during the period of the British Mandate (1922-1948) emigrated from Europe and western Asia, few from America. Yet, as Michael Brown points out, several individuals from the minimal number who came from the United States rose to key positions in the Yishuv. He cites Golda Meir, Judah Magnes, and Henrietta Szold. (1) For reasons that will soon become evident, Bessie Gotsfeld ought to be added. Today Gotsfeld's name is familiar to only one section of American Jewry, Amit Women, yet her work was instrumental in creating Israeli society and culture. Her activities were in many ways parallel to those of the more famous Szold, who, paradoxically, was both her partner and her nemesis. The two women not only helped to forge Israeli society but also enhanced the lives of their American followers, boosting their self-confidence, strengthening their Judaism, and deepening their attachment to Zion.

For many years, the name Bessie Goldstein Gotsfeld was synonymous with the Mizrachi Women's Organization of America (MWOA), the Zionist organization for American Orthodox women. Gotsfeld (1888-1962), a native of Galicia who arrived in New York in 1905, and her stepmother, Adela Goldstein, were principal founders of MWOA in 1925. Goldstein was the organization's president during its early years, but Gotsfeld was, from the beginning, its driving force. To insure the proper administration of new projects, Goldstein settled in Palestine in 1931. She assumed the title "Palestinian Representative of MWOA," and was legally bound to execute organizational policy. From that time forward, she micromanaged every MWOA activity in Palestine, as well as most policies promulgated by the central office in New York.

MWOA's first undertaking in Palestine was Bet Zeirot Mizrachi (BZM) in Jerusalem, a vocational secondary school that opened in 1933. BZM was intended originally for poor girls from the Old Yishuv. Some enrolled, but, in the wake of Nazi persecution, German girls from Orthodox homes joined them. During World War II and immediately thereafter, the school accommodated European refugees and local residents, and by the early 1950s, most students were refugees from Arab countries. Other schools followed, as well as houses for young working women, day nurseries, social and cultural centers, and two large children's farm villages. Today MWOA's successor organization, Amir Women, is the leading foreign supporter of technical and commercial education and social services for Orthodox youth in Israel. (2)

In 1912, Henrietta Szold (1860-1945) founded Hadassah, America's general female Zionist organization. Eight years later she arrived in Palestine, opened medical services for women and children, and founded a nursing school. She later became an official of the Yishuv's Presidium and National Council, managing the Yishuv's educational and social organs. In old age, she assumed even greater responsibility, directing Youth Aliyah in Palestine. In the latter capacity, Szold frequently came in contact with Bessie Gotsfeld. (3)

At times the relationship between the two women was amiable, as when Szold observed a BZM graduation ceremony, where, as Gotsfeld proudly announced to her membership, the older woman was "greatly impressed." (4) On other occasions, the two women were at loggerheads. Gotsfeld resented Hadassah's wealth and prestige, as well as the affiliation of many Orthodox women with both organizations. When Szold became director of Youth Aliyah, she became the focus of Gotsfeid's disaffection. Like most Orthodox leaders, Gotsfeld advocated an increase of immigration certificates for religiously observant girls. When they were not forthcoming, she blamed Szold. However, when they did arrive she took credit for them. (5)

Szold, in turn, had her own grievances. She complained that the constant demands by all Orthodox groups, particularly MWOA, soaked up a disproportionate amount of her time. …

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