June 11, 2019
Emma Gottheil, one of the first and most important women Zionist leaders passes away at her New York home at the age of 85. Born in in Beirut in 1862, she is sent to Paris in 1874 to further her education with the rest of her family moving to France soon after. She is an exceptional student, becoming fluent in several languages with a primary interest in French literature. Emma marries at a young age and has three sons. She suffers the loss of one of her sons as well as her husband, becoming a widow while still in her twenties.
She meets Richard Gottheil, a professor at Semitic Languages at Columbia University in 1898. Gottheil, whose father Gustav is a Reform Rabbi at the city’s Temple Emanu-El, is an early Zionist supporter. The couple marries and Emma moves with her new husband to New York in 1891. She lectures on French literature at Columbia and works as a translator.
In 1898, she and Richard, then serving as the first President of the newly created American Federation of Zionists, attend the Second Zionist Congress as official delegates. The Second Zionist Congress endows women who have paid their membership dues with equal voting rights. This is especially noteworthy as women still did not have the right to vote in the United States. Emma impresses Theodor Herzl during the Congress, and he invites her to sit on the stage and translate his messages into French, Italian and English.
Following the Congress, Herzl encourages Emma to recruit more American Jewish women to the cause of the new movement. When she returns to New York, Emma holds meetings at her home for groups of young women, mainly immigrants from the Lower East Side. Calling themselves “Daughters of Zion,” the group studies Zionist and Jewish subjects, eventually adopting the name Hadassah in memory of Emma’s mother.
Within a few years, several “Daughters of Zion” groups, some of which also call themselves Hadassah, form in the city. One such group is established at New York’s Temple Emanu‐El where Emma’s father‐in‐law had been the rabbi. In 1906, Dr. Judah Magnes had succeeded Rabbi Gottheil as the congregation’s leader. Magnes, like the Gottheils, is an early supporter of the Zionist movement and his views help shape the chapter as he encourages its growth. In 1909, Magnes encourages Henrietta Szold, who has just returned from a trip to Palestine, eager to engage in practical work to help Jews there, to join the Hadassah group at Temple Emanu-El.
Henrietta is nearly twice the age of most of the members. She becomes the group’s leader and engages many of her peers, including Emma Gottheil to help shape the group’s work. In 1912, the new Hadassah holds its first meeting at Temple Emanu-El with Gottheil one of the organizers.
Emma continues in a leadership role for Hadassah, hosting meetings in her home and overseeing projects. She also deepens her involvement in Zionist fundraising activities, organizing both the Keren Hayesod Women’s division and the Women’s League for Palestine. The latter focusses on raising money for education and social projects that benefit young women in Palestine.
In 1940, she receives the French Cross of the Legion of Honor for her work on Franco-American relations.
An undated photo of Emma Gottheil. Photo Source: The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America