The standard bearer

Upon hearing of the creation of the new state, Rebecca Affachiner enthusiastically waved her own homemade flag from the porch.

Gorodesky with Rebecca Affachiner's flag 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Gorodesky with Rebecca Affachiner's flag 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ezra Gorodesky, a noted Jerusalem collector, remembers his first encounter with the woman known as Israel’s “Betsy Ross.”
“Fifty-one years ago, just after my aliya, I visited her apartment on Jabotinsky Street for the first time, near what is now the President’s Residence.
Sitting there, perfectly dressed, was Rebecca Affachiner,” he recalls. “A special gift, which she entrusted to me, was her handmade Magen David [Star of David] flag, first flown in 1948.”
Affachiner was born in 1884 in Neszvizh – Poland then, Belarus now. Her grandfather was a noted rabbi who lived to be 104.
In 1889, her father, Isaac Affachiner, left his family and traveled to the US. Two years later, he brought his wife, Rebecca and his other three children to live on New York’s East Side.
Rebecca Affachiner received a solid American education, which left its impact on her. As a teenager, she participated in the Educational Alliance on East Broadway and later trained as a social worker in the New York School of Philanthropy.
Between 1904 and 1907, she became acquainted with Henrietta Szold when both were students at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America – Szold in the rabbinical school, Affachiner in the course for teachers. The seminary’s chancellor, Solomon Schechter, and his wife Mathilde befriended Affachiner while she was a student; her diploma from 1907, preserved in Jerusalem, attests that she was the school’s first woman graduate.
After completing her studies, she became 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.
She also 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 her to the founding meeting of Hadassah, which she gladly attended. A few weeks later, in early March, Affachiner was elected to the organization’s first board of directors.
Volunteering in 1918 to be a war worker for the Jewish Welfare Board, she was shipped overseas the next year to the embarkation center in Le Mans, France, to work with the 77th Regiment, which had the largest number of American Jewish soldiers in the army.
She performed manifold duties there, 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 Passover Seder for 350 men.
From 1920 to 1926, she was the superintendent of the United Hebrew Charities in Hartford, and she helped coordinate Albert Einstein’s and Chaim Weizmann’s 1921 visit to the community.
She made her first visit to Eretz Yisrael in the summer of 1926, praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Tisha Be’av and touring the colonies in the Jezreel Valley. This trip made her realize where she truly wanted to live.
In 1934, she sailed for Palestine and made aliya at the age of 50. After she settled in Jerusalem, her first project was the establishment of an organization to assist the crippled children’s hospital, now known as Alyn. Last year, her picture was placed on the wall of honor in the hospital director’s office.
She also attended the initial concert of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (now the Israel Philharmonic), conducted by Arturo Toscanini, in 1934. A movie lover, she was a regular at the Palatin cinema in Jerusalem; her movie ticket stubs indicate that Jean Harlow and Clark Gable were among her favorites.
IN THE mid-1930s she began to fear the effects of Hitler’s rise 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. She traveled there in 1937, at her own expense, to get a firsthand picture of the situation.
Her next visit to Romania was in August 1939, the month before World War II began.
While there, she worked feverishly to help young Romanian Jews leave for Palestine. Her efforts were similar to Szold’s Youth Aliyah movement.
Affachiner’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 [Jacob] 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 on September 1, 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.”
On her return, she joined her fellow Jews in Mandatory Palestine for the war. Jerusalem, where she resided, was safe, but the Italian Air Force bombed Tel Aviv and Haifa, killing many people.
Although those years of conflict were not easy for Affachiner, she frequently walked to people’s homes, helping those in need.
After the war ended, she visited her family in the US briefly and then returned to Jerusalem, where she attended, as an observer, 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 United Nations that created the Partition Plan passed on November 29, 1947.
As the end of the mandate approached in May 1948, an American consular official knocked at the door of Affachiner’s apartment on Jabotinsky Street. He urged her to leave the country immediately ahead of the expected outbreak of violence. However, she 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,” she said. “I do not intend to miss it.”
YET IT was a dramatic act on Friday, May 14, 1948, that won her a permanent place in the folk annals of the state-to-be.
Though she wanted to fly the flag of the new Jewish state, she had been unable to leave her apartment for the first two weeks of May because it was under enemy fire from a nearby neighborhood.
Not to be thwarted, she cut up a bedsheet and sewed it into a flag with a sixpointed star and stripes. For coloring, she used what was at hand, a blue crayon.
Later that afternoon, when she learned that David Ben-Gurion had proclaimed the new State of Israel, she went out on her porch, which now faces the President’s Residence, and triumphantly raised her flag as the sun set brilliantly over the city of Jerusalem.
From 1949 until the early ’60s, she flew the flag each year on Independence Day. She presented it to Gorodesky just before her death.
Her closest relative in her last years was her niece, Prof. Marcella Brenner of Chevy Chase, Maryland, who received worldwide recognition for pioneering museum education. She visited her aunt in 1951 and almost annually afterward; each time, Affachiner was proud to show off her flag.
Inspired by her aunt, Brenner became a major donor in Israel, involved with both the Israel and Tel Aviv museums and the Bezalel Art School, where she created the Morris Louis Gallery (named after her husband, artist Morris Louis) and the School of Architecture.
She also established the Program for Innovative Teaching in conjunction with the Education Ministry in 1971.
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.
Inspired by her aunt’s devotion to the Jewish nation and especially its children, both Brenner and 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 should inspire the Jewish people forever.