Jessie Ethel Sampter
1883 – 1938
Jessie Ethel Sampter, poet, Zionist thinker and educator, social reformer, and pacifist, was a member of the inner circle of Henrietta Szold’s female friends in Palestine during the 1920s and 1930s.
Like Szold, she was raised in a family of girls and never married. The Sampter family had two children, Jessie and Elvie.
Jessie Sampter was born in New York City, on March 22, 1883, to Rudolph and Virginia (Kohlberg) Sampter, prosperous second-generation German Jews, and raised in an elaborately decorated mansion on Fifth Avenue in Harlem, housing three generations of an extended family. She was a sensitive, frail child, partially crippled by polio at age thirteen. Because illness prevented her from attending school, her family engaged tutors. Later, she audited courses at Columbia University, but most of her education was acquired through extensive reading at home.
Poems written in her twenties reflected the humanitarian standpoint of her Ethical Culture background and of the Unitarian Church, which she joined. Ever the “Seeker” (the title of an early poetry collection and a youth group under her supervision), Sampter maintained a lifelong quest for respite from physical pain, emotional distress, and spiritual longing. Five people raised her Jewish consciousness and introduced her to Zionism. Josephine Lazarus, sister and biographer of the poet Emma Lazarus, and the writer Mary Antin, kindled the spark; poet Hyman Segal uncovered residual national feelings; Professor Mordecai Kaplan presented the idealism of the biblical prophets and the evolutionary development of Judaism. In the home of Henrietta Szold, her most influential mentor, Sampter absorbed the power and the beauty of Jewish ritual. Through Szold, she learned to appreciate New York’s Eastern European Jews. Soon she moved into a settlement house on the Lower East Side, and then to a YMHA. The two women embraced a religious and philosophical pacifism that proved unpopular after the United States entered World War I. Ultimately, they surrendered to pressure from Zionist leaders, who feared the taint of disloyalty, and resigned from a pacifist organization.
During the war years, Sampter became American Zionism’s educator par excellence. She organized Hadassah’s School of Zionism, training young leaders for Zionist girls’ clubs and adult speakers for Hadassah and the general Zionist organizations, first the Federation of American Zionists, then the Zionist Organization of America. She was director of the school and conducted its class on Zionism. In 1917, three hundred students enrolled in correspondence courses. To further disseminate the Zionist message, Sampter composed “propaganda” (educational) manuals with Alice Seligsberg and edited a textbook on Zionism that went through three editions.
In 1919, Sampter found a permanent home in Palestine, with a commitment so strong that she relinquished her American citizenship. At first she lived in Jerusalem, hosting Sabbath services along progressive lines. The participants—including Szold, educator Alexander Dushkin, and Norman Bentwich, attorney general of the British mandate—were as exceptional as the services they conducted. They omitted prayers for the restoration of Temple sacrifice, and encouraged female participation in the reading and communal singing of uplifting songs of all kinds.
Preferring country to city life and a classless society to capitalism, Sampter built a cottage in the village of Rehovot, then joined Kibbutz Givat Brenner. With the proceeds from her house, she constructed Bet Yesha, a vegetarian convalescent home, on kibbutz land and lived in one of the rooms.
Atypically for Jews from Europe and America, Sampter displayed active concern for the Yemenite Jews then trickling into Palestine. She chafed at their inferior position in Jewish society and tried to remedy the unjust treatment of females in their polygamous community. Girls and women were usually denied an education and confined to menial occupations. From the start, Sampter undertook the education of Yemenite girls in classes and clubs. She adopted a foundling Yemenite child and educated her in a progressive fashion.
Sampter channeled her pacifist convictions into advocacy of peaceable relations between Jews and Arabs. Her poems and stories envisioned Ishmael and Isaac dwelling fraternally in the land of a common ancestor. Even after terrorist incidents, which she reported in all their brutality, she advocated a policy of nonreprisal, blaming the British for criminal negligence of administrative duties.
Never physically strong and always emotionally fragile, Sampter succumbed to malaria and heart disease on November 11, 1938, and was interred in Givat Brenner. A sorrowful Henrietta Szold presided over the funeral, then urged kibbutz youth to emulate Sampter’s idealism.
Jessie Sampter was an active writer, a skillful Zionist propagandist, and a seminal Zionist educator. At the time of her untimely death, her poetry manifested a new muscularity as she abandoned conventional forms for common speech and free verse. Today, however, her poems, stories, and articles are more valuable as signs of their time than as literature. Sampter’s principal legacy is personal rather than literary: her exemplary courage in overcoming illness and standing by her convictions, her attempts to advance the regeneration of Judaism on its native soil and to further economic and social justice, and her vision of a mixed population of Jews and Arabs, living side by side in peace and harmony.
Around the Year in Rhymes for the Jewish Child (1920); The Book of Nations (1917); Brand Plucked from the Fire (1937); The Coming of Peace (1919); A Course in Zionism (1915. Revised as A Guide to Zionism, 1920, and Modern Palestine: A Symposium, 1933); The Emek (1927); Far over the Sea: Poems and Jingles for Children by H.N. Bialik. Translated by Jessie Sampter (1939). Issued in Hebrew as Ud Muzal Ma’aish. Translated by Pinchas Lander (1944); In the Beginning (unpublished autobiography); Nationalism and Universal Brotherhood (1914); The Seekers (1910); The Speaking Heart (unpublished autobiography).
AJYB 24:198; Badt-Strauss, Bertha. White Fire: The Life and Works of Jessie Sampter (1956); Bet Yesha: Thirty Years (1965–1966); EJ; Lowenthal, Marvin. Henrietta Szold: Life and Letters (1942); NAW modern; Obituary. NYTimes, November 26, 1938; 16:3; UJE; WWIAJ (1926, 1928, 1938).