An astounding rabbinic dictum identifies the women of the Egyptian Exodus as the first Zionist pioneers: “The virtue of women is superior to that of men; while the men demanded to return to Egypt, the women requested inheritance in the Land” (Midrash Sifri; also Midrash Tanhuma, Bamidbar 21). Ever since those first pioneers expressed their yearning for the Land, many other remarkable women have pioneered pathways to Zion and helped ensure our future inheritance in it.
One of these was Rachel Luzzatto Morpurgo, an ideological forerunner of the modern Zionist movement. Her poem entitled “Kol B’Rama Nishma” (A Voice in Rama is Heard) written half a century before the First Zionist Congress, became a paradigm for an entire generation:
My G-d, my Lord, Rock and Redeemer
Hear, oh hear my plea and prayer
My cry, my fervent supplication
Have mercy on my anguished nation!
Raise my tent, rebuild my home,
Let my sons no longer roam.
Forgive their sins, calm their pain
And raise their banner once again!
Oh G-d, stretch out your helping hand
Let my sons return to Zion
In rejoicing to the Land!
Rachel Morpurgo’s Zionist fervor exercised an impact during a major juncture in Jewish history: the Haskalah began to lose its validity, and was supplanted by the growth of Zionism. In 1855, Sir Moses and Lady Judith Montefiore made a remarkable gesture to the celebrated poet. They invited her to accompany them on their tour of Eretz Yisrael where Montefiore began building Yemin Moshe, the first modern Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem outside the Old City walls.
The busy poet was also a busy housekeeper; her life ensued “bein shir l’sir” – between “the poem and the pot,” yet she found time to teach her daughter and three sons Tanach, Talmud, mathematics, philosophy and Italian literature. Her splendid literary output was posthumously published by Y.Castiliani under the title Ugav Rachel (Rachel’s Lyre).
A different time and a different place produced another Zionist pioneer who was to rescue not only the soul, but the very lives of her generation’s Jewish youth. She was Recha Freier, founder of Youth Aliyah, which rescued 170,000 Jewish children from German-occupied lands. As the wife of a Berlin rabbi, Recha was approached in June 1932 by a group of despondent teenagers who had just been dismissed from their jobs because of their Jewishness and had nowhere to turn. This was the beginning of the fiery rebbetzin’s campaign to save lives in the face of Jewish officialdom’s indifference and antagonism. Unlike most of her contemporaries, Recha Freier was endowed with the blessing, and the agony, of clear vision.
“I felt despair for the situation in Germany,” she recalled, “[and] began setting up an organization for transferring outcast Jewish youth to Palestine, and I called it `Youth Aliyah.'”
When she presented the Jewish leaders with her simple yet revolutionary idea of bringing Jewish youth to agricultural settlements in Eretz Yisrael, they called her “panic-driven.” It was only after large numbers signed up for her aliyah list that the Zionist leaders grudgingly told her to contact Henrietta Szold, director of the Jerusalem Social Service Bureau. Szold’s rejection of the idea consolidated the Zionist leaders’ opposition.
It was the year before Hitler’s rise to power.
Undaunted, Rebbetzin Freier raised funds among her friends and, in October 1932, a group of young boys departed from a Berlin railway station for the Ben Shemen Children’s Village in Eretz Yisrael.
(To be continued)