A woman who cared
Founder of the ‘Jerusalem Post’ Funds and a distinguished citizen of Jerusalem, Helen Rossi could get things done, no matter how challenging the situation.
helen rossi 521 Photo: Dan Landau
She was a short, feisty, gravelvoiced lady with a tough manner and a big heart –
and she smoked like a chimney. Her name was Helen Rossi.
diminutive in stature, she knew how to push her way through and get things done.
In that respect, she was a giant. For many years, she was the fashion writer,
food editor and eventually women’s page editor of The Jerusalem Post, but was
best known as the founder of the Jerusalem Post Funds, initially a one-time
project that became her life’s work.
Back in December 1948, following the
state’s founding, she was troubled that new immigrant children living in transit
camps during the harsh Israeli winter had few if any toys and were not likely to
get much in the way of Hanukka gifts.
So she launched the Jerusalem Post
Toy Fund, which she believed would help bring a smile to these children’s faces.
At that stage, she hadn’t done her homework, so she was unaware of just how many
children lived in economically deprived circumstances. But she was haunted by
the thought of those youngsters who were not yet living in proper housing and
were facing a cold and joyless Hanukka.
Deciding that something had to be
done, she stalked into the office of Gershon Agron, the founding editor of the
paper, perched herself on a corner of his desk and demanded, “What are we going
to do to give them some happiness?” Agron didn’t really need
The problem was what to do in so short a span of
But he knew from experience that no matter how challenging a
situation, Rossi could get things done. Only a few months earlier, after the
Post’s premises had suffered severe damage from explosives and gunfire, Agron
had sent her to America to enlist support, obtain new equipment and sell
She returned on May 14, just in time for the
proclamation of the sovereign State of Israel.
Coincidence has a long
arm, and just as she and Agron were pondering what could be done, the phone in
his office rang.
The caller was Marianne Hoofien, wife of Eliezer
Hoofien, chairman of Bank Leumi’s precursor, the Anglo-Palestine Bank. She was
no less concerned than Rossi about the plight of the children.
you do something?” she asked Agron.
“We were just talking about it,” he
The discussion continued well into the night. There was a
consensus that what children wanted more than anything else was toys to play
with. But even if there had been money available to buy toys, there were not
many choices in the shops at that time.
When Rossi first started at The
Palestine Post in 1939, she had worked in the advertising department, and now she drew on
this experience, initiating an advertising campaign for toys. Agron gave the
project his blessing. Rossi decided to have what she called a toy shower, in
conjunction with the Sa’ad Home Aid Society.
In her campaign, she asked
Israeli children to donate some of their toys to the newcomers.
response was way beyond anything she had anticipated. Children on their own or
accompanied by a parent flocked to the offices of what was then The Palestine
Post at all hours of the day and night to deliver toys that would bring pleasure
to children who didn’t have any.
Rossi recruited members of the
administrative, advertising, editorial, printing and maintenance staff to help
her make up gift packages and fill crates that were delivered to transit camps
all over the country.
Everyone pitched in, including Agron. No one dared
refuse. Rossi conducted the whole operation with the authority and efficiency of
a sergeant-major, working almost around the clock herself, to ensure that all
the gifts were properly wrapped and all the crates delivered on time.
slouch at getting others to embrace her cause, she enlisted the services of the
IDF for the distribution of the toys. And she was not content to leave the
deliveries to the khakiclad couriers: She insisted on accompanying
Israel was largely underdeveloped at the time, and army vehicles,
nowhere near as sophisticated as they are today, could not plough through every
kind of terrain. There were times that the soldiers had to go part of the way on
foot, plodding over rocks and mud, along uneven surfaces, up hills and down
valleys – and Rossi, undeterred by nature’s obstacles, plodded along with
When she saw the conditions in which immigrant children were
living, her heart went out to them. She knew instinctively that things would not
be much better by the following Hanukka. If anything, they would be worse,
because more people without means would be arriving in the country.
thus her one-time initiative became the Jerusalem Post Toy Fund. Readers began
sending in small sums of money, which were deposited in a closed account that
increased throughout the year, so that by Hanukka there were sufficient funds to
Reuven Shemtov, the paper’s in-house accountant, was
recruited to keep track of the finances and to invest them well so the interest
could be used for the fund’s special projects.
The toy fund triggered a
positive response not only in Israeli readers, but also in those abroad.
Monetary contributions began to flow in from the United States and Europe, and
even from as far afield as Australia.
Rossi acknowledged them all in a
column that she published in the paper, in addition to sending out receipts. It
was remarkable how many people from different walks of life were moved by her
brief descriptions of what their gifts meant to the children.
everyone sent money. Huge crates of toys and children’s clothing came from
abroad to the Post.
Now Rossi had another problem. The customs
authorities wanted her to pay taxes on the merchandise, not all of which was
Fortunately, she had connections in high places, and although
the matter took a long time to sort out, eventually she was triumphant. No one
who knew her expected otherwise.
She continued to ask children who had
toys to part with some of them for the sake of those who had none. The concept
became contagious, and while many children continued to drop off toys at the
paper’s offices in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, others went to the transit
camps to make direct contributions.
OVER THE next few years, it shocked
Rossi to discover how many children were in foster care, in kibbutz facilities
that in later years became youth villages, or in the care of the nuns at St.
Vincent de Paul.
The more she got to know them, the more positive her
attitude became toward those nuns, who looked after children of all faiths,
providing for their physical and emotional well-being as well as for their
schooling. The sisters also cared for babies, the poor, the homeless, the
elderly and people with physical or mental disabilities.
established close contact not only with the sisters, but also with the Jerusalem
Municipality, social welfare authorities, the army, charitable organizations –
anyone who could help her cause. She also recruited her family, and her only
son, Danny Koussewitsky – then a child himself – frequently accompanied her on
her toy-distributing missions. So did Yissachar Aivas, who eventually became the
paper’s maintenance manager.
Aivas had worked at the Post since boyhood,
but even as he rose in the ranks, he remained Rossi’s loyal and self-appointed
chauffeur, driving her and the sacks of gifts for the children all over the
She did not distinguish among Jew, Christian and Muslim. In her
book, people were people and needs were needs, and religious bias was a
As new needs came to her attention, she expanded her
project. She established the Forget Me Not Fund, which provided needy senior
citizens with heaters and blankets for the winter and which was also a vehicle
for organizing groups of young volunteers to visit the elderly at home, to
attend to necessary repairs or to spruce up the premises with a paint
During the First Lebanon War in 1982, she responded to civilian
needs, and together with Israel’s Muslim population and other concerned
elements, provided relief packages for Lebanon’s civilian population.
also established the Tsofia Fund in 1978 to help wards of the state who were
taking their first independent steps as adults at the age of 18. After that, she
created a Welcome Home Fund for new immigrants who might need some financial
In all these enterprises, she was hands-on.
to be sure the funds that had accumulated so handsomely from countless small
donations were being properly spent.
She also took an active interest in
every member of the staff, alert to when things were not going well for them or
when there was a reason to celebrate. She was unfailingly kind to budding
reporters, always wangling assignments for them so they’d have the chance to
prove they could follow up a story and write it well.
Twice a year, she
edited a fashion supplement, and throughout the year she kept her finger on the
pulse of what was happening in every department of the paper, undeterred by her
failing eyesight or her difficulties in walking.
THOUGH SHE was known to
be problematic when things didn’t go her way, Rossi did her best to be
I visited Communist Hungary with her in the early 1980s
for an international conference of women journalists. She asked me to buy her
the famous Debrecen sausage to take back to Israel. When I refused, other
colleagues waited for her temper to erupt, but she had the presence of mind to
ask why. I explained to her that as a religiously observant Jew, I could not in
good conscience buy non-kosher sausage for another Jew, regardless of whether
she was religious or not. She snorted, but didn’t take the matter any
There were no direct flights from Israel to Hungary in those
days, and we had to fly via Vienna. We had planned to spend a couple of days in
Vienna on the way back, but our travel agent had forgotten to book a hotel for
us. It was the height of both the conference and the opera season in the
Austrian city, and all the hotels were fully booked.
However, because the
city was a transit point for Soviet Jews who had managed to get out of Russia, a
group of ultra-Orthodox Jews maintained apartments where they could stay until
they decided on their next move.
I knew of them and somehow got hold of
the contact person, explained our plight and asked if we could stay over the
He was sympathetic and said we could have a fully furnished
apartment free of charge, provided that there was no Shabbat desecration and
that we brought in no meat products.
Maintaining these conditions came
naturally to me, but I hadn’t realized how difficult it would be for Rossi. We
moved in on a Friday afternoon, and she said she was tired and wanted to
It was a two-bedroom apartment, and she went into her room and
closed the door.
When I got up in the morning to go to synagogue
services, her door was closed, and not wanting to disturb her, I simply
The door was still closed when I returned, and remained closed for
hours. By mid-afternoon, I began to think something might be wrong. She hadn’t
come out to eat, nor had she used the bathroom.
With some trepidation, I
knocked on her door. When she opened it, a gust of smoke filled my
Rossi the chain-smoker could not desist, and not wanting to offend
my sensibilities, she had locked herself in her room, where she almost choked to
Even though walking was difficult for her, I forced her to get
dressed and come for a walk with me in the nearby park where she could breathe
some fresh air. To her credit, she never held that adventure against
For her many good deeds for young and old alike, she received honors
from the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry and the Tel Aviv Municipality, and
the Jerusalem Municipality awarded her the title of distinguished citizen of
She died in 1990.