1885 – 1943
As a young girl, Rachel Natelson corresponded with an uncle who had been studying with Henrietta Szold. From him, she learned about Palestine and the Zionist movement. These exchanges were to lay the foundation for her extraordinary life as a leader on behalf of the Zionist cause—including being one of the founding members of hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.
Born in Brooklyn in 1885 to Samuel and Mary (Rokeach) Wasserzug Natelson, Rachel Natelson attended Brooklyn public schools, and then went on to Adelphi College in New York. She graduated in 1907 as a teacher of English and was awarded the Barlow Medal for excellence in scholarship.
Natelson taught in New York City high schools from 1908 to 1915. It was during this time that she began what would be thirty years of Zionist activity. In 1912, Natelson and seven other women met with Henrietta Szold, and together they founded Hadassah. The purpose of Hadassah was to provide medical and educational services to all citizens of Palestine, regardless of race, religion, or creed. To date, Hadassah remains one of the largest Jewish organizations in America, and certainly the largest Zionist women’s organization. At the time of Rachel Natelson’s death in 1943, Hadassah had branches in five hundred cities in forty-six states. Today, it enjoys a total membership of 380,000, with fifteen hundred branches in the United States.
Natelson served Hadassah as the recording secretary for the New York section until 1915, and then transferred her efforts to its Brooklyn division. In this same year, Natelson decided to leave her teaching career in order to devote herself completely to the Zionist movement. For Hadassah, she was the secretary of the Brooklyn section from 1917 to 1923, chair of the Borough Park section from 1919 to 1922, and a member of the national board from 1919 to 1931.
Natelson became a member of the national executive committee of the Zionist Organization of America and was a delegate at the 1923 Zionist Congress in Carlsbad, Czechoslovakia. In 1926, Natelson was the director of the United Palestine Appeal in Greater New York, and, in 1928, she chaired the Jewish National Fund Council of Hadassah. During World War I, Natelson was secretary of the Magen David Adom. Her deep interest in music led her to help found MAILAMM, the American Palestine Music Association, of which she was national secretary from 1933 until her death. In addition to extensive organizational work, her efforts on behalf of Palestine included authoring several articles on Zionism.
Rachel Natelson was also associated with the national council of jewish women, the Brooklyn Federation of Jewish Charities, the League of Women Voters, the Non-Partisan Society for the League of Nations, and the Adelphi College Alumni and Auxiliary.
It is a tragic irony that, while this passionate Zionist’s work for Hadassah took her traveling throughout the United States, the one trip Rachel Natelson wanted to take most of all, to Palestine, never came to be. Rachel Natelson died in Brooklyn, on May 8, 1943. She was fifty-eight years old.
AJYB 45:390–391; Obituary. NYTimes, May 9, 1943, 40:6; WWIAJ (1926, 1938).