Roza Shoshana Joffe
1866 – 1914
Roza Shoshana Joffe was born in Bristovka in the Yekaterinoslav province, “a distant village in the Ukraine where hatred and contempt for Jews reigned supreme.” Her mother, Duva (d. April 13, 1917), did not have the benefit of formal education but was nevertheless a woman of the book, who diligently read her children books from the family’s well-stocked library, taught them to read with the aid of dice games, and educated them in “the liberal ideology of justice, brotherhood and equality.” Her Lithuanian-born merchant father, Yermiyahu, was learned in Torah but an educated and open-minded maskil in his outlook. The education of Roza, her three sisters (Clara, Vitiya and Rochelle-Rachel) and their brother Hillel (Dr. Hillel Joffe, 1864–1936) was largely in their mother’s hands, since their father was frequently away on business. The parents ensured that the children had as wide-ranging an education as possible. When she was young, Roza and her siblings were sent to the gymnasium in Berdiyansk, on the Sea of Azov. On completing her studies there, Roza went to the south of France and for three years studied natural sciences at Montpelier University. Upon graduating in 1889 she returned to Russia and began teaching in a Jewish school in Simferopol, Ukraine. Judging by her letters the school was the best in the city. She greatly enjoyed teaching and her pupils loved her classes and did well in their studies. At this time she decided to immigrate to Erez Israel and establish a girls’ school there. She asked her brother, who was already in the country, to look for work for her at a school or elsewhere, because she was determined to fulfill her desire to settle there.
In 1892, at the age of twenty-six, Roza joined her brother in Tiberias, where he had settled and where he worked for two years as the city’s doctor. The fulfillment of her dream was delayed until the beginning of 1893, when the Alliance Israélite Universelle asked the twenty-seven-year-old to head its girls’ school in Jaffa, in accordance with the organization’s policy that every institution under its aegis be headed by “one of its own kind.” The appointment was also well received by the members of Hovevei Zion in Odessa, who partially funded the school, since they were confident that any sister of Dr. Hillel Joffe would be true to their plan to establish a Hebrew school. Roza and her family were close in spirit to the Hovevei Zion circles and committed to the national movement. The appointment was also approved by Ahad Ha’am. Roza settled in Jaffa, together with her mother and her sister Rachel, who had also completed natural science studies at Montpelier University and was appointed as the school’s teacher.
On Rosh Hodesh Adar 1893, the school opened with the declared intention of teaching Hebrew to the girls of Jaffa, the mothers of the next generation, so that they might speak the language with their children and thus raise a new Hebrew generation in Erez Israel. And thus the era of the National Hebrew School was launched in Jaffa. However, the gap between the conflicting goals of the two founding organizations soon became apparent and there was no way of bridging it. Hovevei Zion had their sights set on a nationalist school, where Hebrew would be the sole language of instruction, while the Alliance, with its assimilationist tendencies, inculcated French language and culture in the Jews of the Middle East. The Alliance demanded that teaching be in French, but Roza opposed and ignored this directive. Imposing Hebrew as the major language of instruction was the first case of teaching general studies in that language and it established the foundations of modern Hebrew education in Erez Israel. The two basic assumptions could not co-exist: misunderstandings and disputes soon led to sorry consequences.
For ten years the school functioned in the shadow of conflicts and disagreements between the partners in Jaffa and Odessa and their counterparts in Paris regarding the Hebrew-nationalist method of the schools. As a result, in the 1902/1903 school year, at the recommendation of Ahad Ha’am, the girls’ school was transferred to the sole ownership of the Hovevei Zion organization of Odessa. The school continued to develop “thanks to the hard work of the teaching staff and the principal, who was wholeheartedly dedicated to this project.”
Her pupils’ welfare and the school’s ongoing development were always Roza Joffe’s prime concern and she devoted herself to them with all her might. The school educated in the spirit of love of the Hebrew language and the values of Hebrew culture. When Ahad Ha’am visited the school, he was profoundly impressed and noted the good atmosphere that reigned in it, the excellent relations between the staff and the pupils, the utter dedication to their tasks of the educators and the diligence of the pupils, thirsting for knowledge. Roza cultivated the outstanding pupils; she trained them to become teachers in the moshavot, thus paving the way for them to lead economically independent lives. At the same time, she was fulfilling Hovevei Zion’s goal of establishing a cadre of educators, which was perceived as the major purpose of the Hebrew girls’ school. Despite the difficulties with which she had to cope, she succeeded in establishing close connections with her pupils, who both respected and admired her.
However, the problems continued and increased. The school faced operating difficulties as a result of many expenses and little income. It was indigent and could scarcely provide a living for its teachers. For a further two years (1903–1904), Roza continued her attempt to set the school on a firm path, coping endlessly with budgetary difficulties, antiquated premises, high rent and, above all, a shortage of staff, curricula, textbooks and teaching materials.
In addition to these external difficulties, Roza had to deal with unexpected internal problems. The Hebrew-speaking members of her staff opposed the extension of her appointment and harshly criticized the fact that she spoke both French and Russian. The topic that became the focus of the conflict was that her Hebrew was not perfect. In their opinion, a woman who was deficient in Hebrew and served as a teacher of French did not deserve to head a Hebrew school.
After eleven years as principal, during which she had fought for the school’s very existence, Roza Joffe had enough of the endless complaints and criticisms of the teachers, Hovevei Zion and the Alliance. At the end of the 1903–1904 school year she was compelled to give up her position. Although the Alliance offered her a teaching position at one of its schools elsewhere, she rejected these offers and insisted on staying in Erez Israel.
As a Lover of Zion she had since childhood imbibed the desire to come on aliyah and participate in the Zionist project, it was now clear to her that her proper place was in the village rather than the city. She therefore reached a remarkable decision: to settle in one of the moshavot in the Galilee and there establish not only an agricultural holding, but perhaps also a school for the daughters of farmers. Henceforth it seemed to be quite natural that she should connect her life to the Hebrew village and work the land. She chose Yavne’el, the “mother of moshavot in the Lower Galilee.”
At the end of 1904, Roza Joffe left Jaffa and became a farmer at Yavne’el. She established her own farm—an unusual phenomenon in this society of farmers who operated family-based farms. At first she was highly regarded because she had left the city and become an independent smallhold owner. She differed from the other women in the moshavah in being single, highly educated, independent, “strong” and running a farm which she operated herself. Building herself a large house in the center of the moshavah, she cultivated grain crops (wheat, barley and cattle fodder such as dura, and also ran a subsidiary farm devoted primarily to raising animals (cattle, poultry, sheep and horses) and also to growing vegetables. Her close relations with the officials of Baron Maurice de Hirsch helped her in operating the farm, but heightened the anger and envy of the other farmers and led to conflicts with them. Over time, there arose opposition to her. She constantly voiced criticism of the farmers, interfered in their activities, accused them of being lazy, easily discouraged, lacking in energy and the will to work.
Roza participated regularly in the general meetings of the moshavah and frequently expressed her opinions and presented proposals, but her suggestions were usually rejected. As an independent farmer she had voting rights equal to those of the male farmers. At the general meeting in November 1913 she was even nominated as chair of the committee, but she withdrew her candidacy.
Joffe remained in Yavne’el until December 1913, when she died suddenly of anthrax poisoning (January 1914), a virus that humans incur from animals. Her brother, Dr. Hillel Joffe, was summoned urgently, but he arrived too late to save her. She never married or raised a family and her dream of establishing a school for the daughters of farmers was cut short by her tragic death.
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Joffe, Roza. “On the School in Jaffa.” Ha-shiloah, vol. 5, Pamphlet 25–30. 1899, 69–72.
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