A 19th Century teacher in Jerusalem

Who would ever think that the establishment of a girls’ school in Jerusalem would present a threat?

Teacher with students (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Teacher with students
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Who would ever think that the establishment of a girls’ school in Jerusalem would present a threat? Why would one woman’s dream be so hard to realize? The story of Flora Rendger (Friedenberg), who lived from 1824 to 1910, exemplifies the difficulties faced by an idealistic teacher coming (twice) from Italy to Jerusalem in the hopes of setting up a school for Jewish girls.
What precipitated this dream? Flora’s father, Meir, was a German Jew living in Trieste, Italy, a teacher and rabbi who taught German and French to budding scholars like Samuel David Luzzatto and published in literary Hebrew journals. He himself established a private girls’ school in Trieste in 1848, if only to educate his two daughters as he saw fit.
Flora and her father saw eye to eye; when she decided to translate the Haggada into Italian, he edited it for her. Meir apparently aspired to settle in the Yishuv, having been influenced by its representatives who visited Italy to spread the word. However, he passed away in 1853, leaving his dream for his daughter to inherit.
Flora kept a diary in Italian, which informs us that she moved to the Land of Israel twice in her lifetime. “The idea of traveling to Jerusalem was stuck in my mind, because a promise to God was in my opinion, holy just like a promise to a person, despite the fact that people were trying to convince me that this idea emerged from a mad fanaticism. How great and hard was the struggle I had to engage in with myself and with my family, with weakness of body and the empty pocket,” she wrote.
Upon arriving in the city in 1856, she was told that there a law had been passed in the 18th century Yishuv forbidding unmarried individuals from living in Jerusalem. Flora succumbed to the pressure and wed a Hungarian Jew the following year. Interestingly enough, when she met Moses Montefiore in 1857, she discussed her difficulties with him. He promised to get the London Committee to come to her aid so that she could teach in a girls’ school.
In the meantime she was giving private lessons, some free of charge. The promised aid did not materialize and in 1858, she and her husband left by way of Alexandria, where they lived for a year before returning to Trieste.
Flora continued to dream of setting up a girls’ school in the Holy Land while she gave private lessons in her home town. Another major patron of the Jewish international community touched upon her life, this time Baron Rothschild, who planned to establish the Evelina School in memory of his daughter. After being invited to set up this school, Flora, her husband, her three sons and daughter made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1864. This time, the Ashkenazi rabbis in the city protested, calling for a ban on the girls’ school (which Sephardi girls also attended). These rabbis called Flora a malignant cancer. She hoped to overcome this opposition, but a combination of economic problems, social pressure and health issues convinced her to take her family back to Trieste in 1866.
She met Montefiore again in Italy. The philanthropist referred to her as a wise, important and learned lady, but these superlatives did not help her realize her dream. Flora, as talented and motivated as she was, was not fated to be the founder of a girls’ school in the Holy Land. Her diary, entitled Strenna Israelitica, survived and was published in 1869; it is a wonderful source of information on life in the Holy Land in the second half of the 19th century. Her travel diary has been translated into Hebrew by Daniel Carpi and Moshe Rinot, who published it, together with comments in 1982 under the title Travel Diary of a Jewish Teacher from Trieste to Jerusalem, 1857-1865.
The author is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute and academic editor of Nashim. She is currently a fellow in the School of Historical Studies at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Study.