(photo credit: Courtesy)
Eighteen-year-old Jean Weiss did not fully understand the significance of her actions on the day in May 1948 when she ripped the telegram off the teletype, announcing that Israel had been officially declared a state by David Ben-Gurion.
"I still remember what the last sentence read," recalled the now 77-year-old in an interview with The Jerusalem Post Thursday. "It said: 'A Jewish state to be called Israel.'"
"I was very young at the time and we were just doing our job. Our goal was to create a country for the Jews and we had achieved it. The magnitude of what we had done only dawned on me much, much later," continued Weiss, who was in Israel for the first time in her life this week as part of a Northern New Jersey Jewish Federation mission of 350 people, the largest trip to Israel since last summer's Lebanon war.
Weiss, who in the late 1940s worked as an assistant to the Jewish Agency for Israel's public relations officer Isaiah "Si" Kenen, helped draft and eventually type up the final press release announcing to Jewish communities and the rest of the world that the Jewish state had been declared.
"The country today has far surpassed everything I ever dreamed of," said an emotional Weiss, who received an award Wednesday from the United Jewish Communities for her work in the Jewish Agency during that period. "It is so modern and new, with everything built of stone; we've accomplished so much, more than what the Arabs did with their share of the land."
"I know I should have come sooner to visit," she continued. "I left my job a few years later, moved away from the area and went on to raise a family."
Growing up in Brooklyn, Weiss became involved in Zionist activities when one of her friends took her along to a Jewish youth club meeting more than 60 years ago.
"No one even knew what Zionism was, let alone that there would one day be a Jewish state," explained Weiss. "No one thought it would ever happen. People looked at us as though we weren't all together in the head."
But Weiss said she didn't care and allowed her commitment to raising awareness of the need for a Jewish homeland to grow, even going out onto New York subways during rush hour to ask Jewish tailors to throw their spare change into JNF collection boxes.
While her activism for building a Jewish state continued, Weiss's professional life took a different turn when she graduated with a degree in costume design. She went to work for a company on 14th Street but a strange twist of fate outside the offices put her on the path to playing her role in Israel's early history.
"I was crossing the street and got sideswiped by a car. There was no visible damage but the next day I could not get out of bed," she said. It took Weiss several months to get back on her feet, and during that time she realized that devoting herself to the Jewish homeland was her destiny.
"I wanted to follow my dream and looked for work in the American Jewish Conference [American Jewish organization created in August 1943 to unify American Jewry]," said Weiss, adding that not long afterwards statesman Abba Eban arrived as an emissary for the Jewish Agency in New York. He was later appointed Israel's ambassador to Washington and a permanent representative to the UN.
Talking about the legendary man, Weiss recalled: "He was a wonderful choice, very elegant and dignified; I even believe that he was respected by the Arabs."
She explained that her office was merged with Eban's and that the small staff spent many days and nights drafting documents for the UN committee appointed to looking into the partition plan.
"I was the only one who knew how to take shorthand," she said. "The UN would only let us know late in the afternoon if they wanted a presentation for the following morning, so I would stay up all night taking down dictation, typing up the documents, handing them to Abba Eban for approval and then retyping them until we got it right."
As for the day that the news of Israel's declaration of independence came across the teletype, Weiss said: "I just could not believe that it would happen in my life time. We wrote up the press release and sent it out to the world."
The rest, as they say, is history.