The Betsy Ross of Israel: Rebecca Affachiner

Rebecca Affachiner was a pioneer in many ways. Her love for Israel will always be seen in the flag that she made and her lasting tributes to the people, the land and the institutions of this country.

 The portrait of Rebecca Affachiner by Abraham Bogdanove. Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem (photo credit: Courtesy)
The portrait of Rebecca Affachiner by Abraham Bogdanove. Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
(photo credit: Courtesy)

“Just after my aliyah in 1960, I knocked on the door of an apartment on Jabotinsky Street just across from what is now the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. I heard someone say, ‘Come in,’ which I did.

“Sitting there perfectly dressed was Rebecca Affachiner about whom I was to learn a great deal before her death five years later. A special gift, which she entrusted to me, was her handmade Magen David flag first flown in 1948.” 

These were the thoughts of Ezra Gorodesky, the noted Jerusalem collector, who, for the last half-century continued to relate the story of Rebecca so she would not be forgotten. Sadly, Ezra passed away on January 10, 2021, at the age of 92.

Rebecca was born in 1884 in Neszvizh – Poland then, Belarus now. The town’s most famous rabbi was Yitzhak Elchanan Spektor, who left in the 1870s for Kovno, Lithuania, where he became one of the leading halachic authorities in the world. Rebecca’s grandfather was a noted rabbi who lived until the age of 104.

In 1889, Isaac Affachiner left his family, traveling to the US to start a business. In 1891 he brought his wife as well as Rebecca and his other three children to live on the East Side of New York. There Rebecca was given an American education, which left its impact on her.

In her neighborhood, she participated in the multifaceted activities of the famous Educational Alliance on East Broadway and later trained as a social worker in the New York School of Philanthropy. Between 1904 and 1907 Rebecca became acquainted with Henrietta Szold when both were students at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America; Szold in the rabbinical school, Affachiner in the school for teachers. 

During the course of her studies, Rebecca was befriended by the chancellor of the seminary, Solomon Schechter, and his wife, Mathilde. The first woman graduate of JTS in 1907, Rebecca went to work as the superintendent of the Columbia Religious and Industrial School for Jewish Girls, an innovative educational institution on the East Side, where she was employed for 10 years. “Rebecca Affachiner,” Mathilde Schechter wrote, “brings with her knowledge and Jewish spirit, eagerness to do her duty in a pleasing, sympathetic manner.“ 

In this same decade, she served as chaplain in the Home for Delinquent Girls in upstate New York and founded the Jewish Big Brother and Big Sister Movements in Manhattan. In February 1912, Szold invited Rebecca to the founding meeting of Hadassah, which she gladly attended. A few weeks later, in early March, Rebecca was elected to the organization’s first board of directors. Rebecca treasured that 1912 invitation and permitted it to be placed in the cornerstone of the Hadassah Hospital at Ein Kerem.

To expand her talents Rebecca enrolled at an art school in New York. While there, her portrait was painted by a fellow student, a young Russian emigre artist, Abraham Bogdanove. The Brenner family returned the portrait to Rebecca’s home, and it is now owned by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Volunteering to be a war worker for Jewish Welfare Board, Rebecca was shipped overseas to the embarkation center in Le Mans, France, in January 1919 to work with the 77th Regiment which had the largest number of American Jewish soldiers in the army.

Based in her own Jewish Welfare Board hut, Rebecca performed manifold duties including serving cookies and chocolates to several hundred men each night and dancing with as many as her feet would allow. She sewed on their chevrons and corresponded with their parents. She planned and orchestrated a Seder for 350 men.

In May 1919, she welcomed the Commander in Chief of the American Expeditionary Forces, General John J. Pershing, on his visit to the J.W.B. Hut in Le Mans. At the end of the month, Rebecca spoke at the Memorial Day Observance, attended by civilians and military personnel. There, she was presented a medal with her picture on it as a gift from the French government.

From 1920 to 1926, she was the superintendent of the United Hebrew Charities in Hartford and she is remembered in The History of the Jews of Hartford. Her record there was a stellar one. 

A major event, in 1921, was the visit of Chaim Weizmann and Albert Einstein to the community. Upon leaving Hartford, she made her first visit to Eretz Yisrael in the summer of 1926, praying at the Western Wall on Tisha Be’av and touring the northern part of the country. This trip made her realize where she truly wanted to live.

For a year after her return, she worked as a field secretary for the growing Hadassah organization and recruited many more women into its membership. Next she moved for five years to Norfolk Virginia, where she became the Director of Social Services for the National Council of Jewish Women and the Council House, which was the Educational Alliance in Norfolk at that period.

Rebecca sailed for Palestine in January 1934, making aliyah at the age of 50. After settling in Jerusalem, her first project was the establishment of an organization to assist the crippled children’s hospital, now known as Alyn. Gorodesky recalled that her portrait was placed in the director’s office of Alyn, and emphasized how much it meant for Affachiner to have a facility where children with physical problems could be cared for.

In 1934, she attended the initial concert of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (now the Israel Philharmonic) conducted by Arthur Toscanini. She loved the movies and was a regular at the Palatin cinema in Jerusalem. Jean Harlow and Clark Gable were among her favorites as her movie ticket stubs indicate.

In the mid-1930s she was among those to fear the effects of the rise of Hitler to power and the Nazi restrictions on the Jews. After meeting Romanian Jewish refugees in Jerusalem , her focus was on that country and its Jewish population. In 1937, she traveled there at her own expense, to get a firsthand picture of the situation. Her next visit to Romania was in August 1939, before World War II began. While there, Affachiner worked feverishly to assist young Romanian Jews to leave for Palestine. 

JEWS CROWD onto a British army armored car as they celebrate in downtown Jerusalem the morning after the United Nations voted to partition British mandate Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. (credit: REUTERS)JEWS CROWD onto a British army armored car as they celebrate in downtown Jerusalem the morning after the United Nations voted to partition British mandate Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. (credit: REUTERS)

Her efforts were quite similar to “Youth Aliyah” Szold had created. Rebecca’s diary entries from that trip are instructive.

“August 21 - Traveled to Masada camp (for teenagers) near Yassy. All here training for life in Palestine . Robust and dedicated, they must be allowed in...

August 26 - War will surely be declared in a few days and the situation here has already worsened for our fellow Jews. A solution must be found.

September 1 - met with Chief Rabbi Nemirower. He is very anxious about the fate of the Jews here. I urged him to get the young people out, and we in Palestine would take care of them.

Her last entry, written at midnight on the morning of September 4, the day after she embarked for Palestine, concluded, “How can we save them? We must extricate as many dependent children as can be provided for and bring them to our land.”

Returning to Mandatory Palestine, she joined her fellow Jews for the war. Jerusalem, where she resided, was safe, but the cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa were bombed by the Italian Air Force, killing many people. Although those years of conflict were not easy for Rebecca, she could be seen going to various homes to help those in need. 

After a brief visit to her family in the United States in 1946, she returned to her city. As an observer, she attended all the international meetings held in Jerusalem to create a Jewish state, including the hearings of the Anglo-American commission and UNSCOP, the agent of the UN that created the partition plan in 1947 determining the future of the Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate.

A pinnacle of hope erupted in 1948 as the conclusion of the mandate in May that year approached. Early in that month, an American consular official knocked at the door of Rebecca’s apartment on Jabotinsky Street. He urged Rebecca to leave Jerusalem and the country immediately because of the expected outbreak of violence. Rebecca absolutely refused, telling him she could not “ abandon her brothers and sisters. I have waited for my entire lifetime to see the rebirth of the Jewish state. I do not intend to miss it.”

Her dramatic act on May 14, 1948, won for her a permanent place in the folk annals of the state-to-be. Desirous of flying the Magen David Adom, the flag of the new Jewish state, Rebecca appeared to be hampered in her resolve. For the first two weeks of May, she had been unable to leave her apartment because it was under enemy fire from the nearby Katamon neighborhood.

Never one to be thwarted, she cut up a bedsheet and sewed it into a flag with a six-pointed star and stripes. For coloring she used what was at hand, blue crayon. Now prepared, she waited for that historic moment.

Late on Friday afternoon, May 14, 1948, when she and all the citizens of Jerusalem learned that David Ben-Gurion had proclaimed the new State of Israel, she went out on her porch, which now faces Beit HaNasi. Triumphantly, Rebecca raised her flag as the sun set brilliantly over the city of Jerusalem. She had become the Betsy Ross of Israel.

From 1949 until the early sixties, she flew the flag herself on Israel Independence Day each year. Just before her death, she passed on her beloved flag to Ezra Gorodesky, who had assisted her in the last five years of her life. 

Her closest relative in her last years was her niece, Prof. Marcella Brenner of Chevy Chase, Maryland. Brenner, received world-wide recognition for her specialty, the field of museum education, which she pioneered at George Washington University. She was married to the painter Morris Louis, who died at an early age. She shepherded his paintings throughout her lifetime, and they are found in every major museum in the world.

Marcella visited her Aunt Beck in 1951, and almost annually afterwards, once bringing over a typewriter which Rebecca desperately needed. Whenever her niece visited, Rebecca was proud to show off her flag.

As the years passed, Prof. Brenner became a major donor in Israel , involved with both the Israel and Tel Aviv Museums and the Bezalel Art School as a lasting tribute to her husband, Morris Louis.

Most creative of her efforts was the Program for Innovative Teaching, founded in 1971 in conjunction with the Ministry of Education.

This endeavor, completely funded by her, enabled teachers to implement individual and innovative projects in the classroom.

Annually, the recipients of these grants would bring samples of their work to Jerusalem where their efforts would be displayed in the ballroom of a major hotel with Prof. Brenner present to enjoy the fruits of Marcella’s labors. Because she taught for over 40 years in high schools and universities in the United States, she had the experience to become a primal force in convincing the Ministry of Education to develop alternatives to frontal teaching.

Director of the Fund for 16 years, as well as an aide throughout Prof. Brenner’s life, Frieda Horowitz of Jerusalem has continued the significant work which Prof. Brenner had initiated over four decades ago. 

Rebecca Affachiner was a pioneer in many ways. Her love for Israel will always be seen in the flag that she made and in the impact she had on her niece, Prof. Marcella Brenner. Inspired by her aunt’s devotion to the Jewish nation and especially its children, both Prof. Brenner and Rebecca Affachiner left lasting tributes to the people, the land and the institutions of this country. The spirit of the Betsy Ross of Israel and her flag, which is permanently housed in the Ben-Gurion Archives in Sde Boker, should inspire the Jewish people forever.■