1880 – 1963
Rahel Goitein Straus, one of the pioneering women medical doctors trained in Germany, can serve as a model precursor to the “New Jewish Women” of the twentieth century. Successfully combining a career as a physician with marriage and motherhood, she adhered to traditional Jewish values, while also embracing feminist and Zionist ideals.
Rahel Goitein was born on March 21, 1880 in Karlsruhe, Baden, Germany, the third daughter of Gabor and Ida (Löwenfeld) Goitein. Two older brothers died in infancy, but a younger brother survived until adulthood. After Rahel’s father, an Orthodox rabbi from Hungary, died when she was three years old, her mother, who had trained as a teacher in Posen, raised the four children on her own in very modest circumstances, supporting them by working as housekeeper, governess and tutor, as well as taking in boarders.
Belonging to the secessionist Orthodox community, Ida Goitein maintained a traditionally observant yet modern household and provided Rahel and her siblings with an excellent Jewish and general education. While in public elementary school, Rahel attended Orthodox religious school classes on Sundays and Wednesdays for eight years, but also received instruction in piano, swimming, skating and gymnastics. In 1899, Rahel Goitein served as valedictorian of the first graduating class of the very first girls’ Gymnasium (or classical high school) in Germany, which had been established in Karlsruhe in 1893. She then went on to become the first matriculated woman student at the University of Heidelberg, beginning in the philosophy faculty but soon gaining admission to the medical faculty.
When she decided to embark on a medical career, her boyfriend Eli Straus, a law student from a wealthy Orthodox family, declared, “Then you will probably never marry!” But he soon changed his mind, and they became engaged in 1901, before she began her clinical training. However, the two did not marry until 1905, after she had taken her final medical exams and he had finished his legal training and been accepted to the bar. In order to complete her medical education, Rahel Goitein had to overcome many obstacles and much discrimination against her as a woman. Some faculty members, including the Dean, tried to discourage her; she needed special permission to take courses and even to sit for her final examinations. Nevertheless, she persevered; a month before her wedding, she passed her state medical boards and in 1908 she received her doctorate in medicine. For twenty-five years, prior to her emigration to Palestine, Rahel Straus maintained a private medical practice in Munich, mainly for women and children, working by choice, not out of financial necessity.
Between 1909 and 1922, Rahel Straus gave birth to five children, Isa, Hannah, Peter, Gabriele and Ernst. A model Jewish wife and mother, she ran a kosher Jewish household, graciously welcoming into her home many visiting Zionist dignitaries, as well as numerous Jewish students for Friday night dinners and Passover seders. Her family’s summer residence outside Munich accommodated a private synagogue for the High Holy Days and a sukkah (or booth) to celebrate the festival of Tabernacles.
Straus was both a quintessential volunteer and an active feminist, involved in a wide range of women’s organizations. An ardent Zionist since her youth, she organized and led various women’s Zionist groups in Munich, including the Association of Jewish Women to Support Cultural Work in Palestine before World War I and WIZO, the Women’s International Zionist Organization, thereafter. She also served on the national executive of the non-Zionist Jüdischer Frauenbund (JFB, Jewish Women’s League) and was under consideration to become its president in 1932. She belonged to several radical feminist organizations, joining the German Association for Woman Suffrage in 1905 and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom after the war. In addition, she gave lectures to women on proper nutrition and birth control, supported abortion rights, and wrote a pamphlet for mothers explaining how to discuss sex with their daughters. While her lawyer husband served as vice-president of the Munich Jewish community in charge of welfare, Straus limited her volunteer activities largely to the women’s sphere, focusing on women’s organizations and women’s issues.
Soon after the death of her husband Eli in 1932, Rahel Straus emigrated to Palestine with her children. She again set up a medical practice in Jerusalem, but, encountering difficulties in adapting to a new language and environment, she retired in 1940, at the age of sixty. Once again, she became involved in volunteer activities on behalf of women, establishing a homemaking school to train young immigrant girls, a service to collect, repair and distribute used clothing and furniture among the needy, and an occupational therapy workshop for handicapped women. She also established AKIM, a training institute for the rehabilitation of disabled children, which is still known as Beit Rahel Straus. In 1952, she helped found the Israeli branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and remained its honorary president until her death.
After retiring from medical practice, Rahel Straus wrote her memoirs, describing life in Germany before the Nazi era. She began to paint and to write poetry; she also became the author of a popular children’s book of fairytales in Hebrew. A wise and warm-hearted woman, always concerned for the well-being of others, Rahel Goitein Straus successfully combined the roles of wife, mother, physician, feminist, volunteer, Zionist and committed Jew. During her long and productive life, she somehow managed to “do it all.” She died in Jerusalem on May 15, 1963 at the age of eighty-three.
Wir lebten in Deutschland: Erinnerungen einer deutschen Jüdin. Stuttgart: 1961; Wege zur sexuellen Aufklärung. 1931.
Badt-Strauss, Bertha. Studententage in München, 1912–11. Munich: 1959.
Freidenreich, Harriet Pass. Female, Jewish, and Educated: The Lives of Central European University Women. Bloomington: 2002.
Freidenreich, Harriet Pass. “Gender, Identity, & Community.” In Michael Breener & Derek J. Penslar, eds. In Search of Jewish Community. Bloomington: 1998, 154–175. Pickus, Keith H. Constructing Modern Identities: Jewish University Students in Germany 1815–1914. Detroit:1999.
Rahel Straus Collection, AR1454, Archives, LBI, New York.
Schmelzkopf, Christiane. “Rahel Straus” In Heinz Schmitt, ed. Juden in Karlsruhe. Karlsruhe: 1988, 476–8.
Marita Krauss, “‘Ein voll erfülltes Frauenleben:’ Die Ärztin, Mutter und Zionistin Rahel Straus (1880–1963),” In Hiltrud Häntzschel & Hadumod Bussmann, eds. Bedrohlich gescheit: Ein Jahrbunder Frauen und Wissenschaft in Bayern. Munich: 1997, 236–41.
Lexikon, 365–8; IBD, I, 744; obituaries: Schweizer Isr. Wochenblatt, May 25, 1963; AJR Information. 18/7, London, July 1963.