Rebecca Affachiner Unfurls the First Israeli Flag
Rebecca Affachiner was prepared. Working at her home under enemy fire, Affachiner had cut up a bed sheet, sewn into it a six-pointed blue star and two stripes, and colored it with blue crayon. When David Ben Gurion announced the formation of the Israeli state, Affachiner joyfully hung her homemade flag from the window of her apartment.
But the woman some consider “the Betsy Ross of Israel” had already proved her devotion to the Jewish state.
Born in 1884, Affachiner grew up on New York's East Side. Like many women of her generation, she became a public school teacher; unlike most of her contemporaries, she received her education at the Jewish Theological Center, and in 1907 was its first female graduate.
After a decade in the classroom, she moved into social work as an investigator for the United Hebrew Charities and later worked as Assistant Superintendent at New York’s Beth Israel Hospital. She was the first woman to act as chaplain in a state institution, serving in that capacity at the New York State Training School in Hudson. When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Affachiner volunteered to join the first women's unit of the Jewish Welfare Board and was Assistant Regional Director of the American Embarkation Center in Le Man, France.
After the war, she settled in Hartford, CT, where she became Superintendent of the United Jewish Charities and was actively involved in the Connecticut State School for the Blind. A pioneer in work with troubled young people, she helped establish the Jewish Big Sisters and Big Brothers organizations in New York City and Hartford.
In 1926 she toured Palestine, Egypt, Italy, and the Near East; upon her return to America, she was appointed the first National Field Secretary of Hadassah, of which she was a charter member. Moving to Norfolk, VA in 1929, Affachiner was Director of Jewish Social Service for Greater Norfolk. Under the auspices of the Norfolk Section of the National Council of Jewish Women, she also founded and directed Council House, the first Jewish Community Center in that city.
In 1934 at the age of 50, Affachiner resigned her post in Norfolk and again sailed for Palestine, where she organized the Palestine Society for Crippled Children, which would become Israel’s leading pediatric rehabilitation hospital (ALYN), acting as its Director of Social Service. She never returned to live in the U.S. and devoted the rest of her life to the welfare of Jews in every part of the world, especially in the state she had helped to create.
Friends have preserved the flag sewn by this remarkable woman; it is still displayed in Jerusalem every few years as a tribute to her extraordinary patriotism.
Sources: Rebecca Gertrude Affachiner Collection, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People Jerusalem (CAHJP); “Rebecca Affachiner, ‘The Betsy Ross of Israel,’ Focus of Emory Exhibit,” Emory University.