When Emma Leon Gottheil sailed from New York to France in the summer of 1897 to visit her family, her husband Richard Gottheil, professor of semitics at Columbia University, remained behind to care for his ailing father, Gustave Gottheil, rabbi of New York’s Temple Emanu-El. Both father and son were part of a small group of pro-Zionist Reform Jews excited by the news of the First Zionist Congress to be convened in August in Basel. Richard asked Emma to attend the Congress. She did not go. As a young student, immersed in the study of the French Revolution, she had been convinced that the time had come when differences of creed could make no difference between people. Later, after reading the accounts of the congress she had not attended, she resolved to study Zionism. When she fully appreciated the implications of Theodore Herzl’s vision, she vowed to dedicate herself to hastening its fulfillment.
Emma was born in Beirut in 1862. Her father, Rahamim Yehuda, a writer and scholar, had come to Palestine from Russia as a small child. Her mother, Hadassah, born in Hebron, was a member of a prominent Sephardi family. The couple had two other children, Eva and Albert.
When she was twelve, her father brought her to Paris to continue her education. Later, he moved the entire family to France. Emma was a brilliant student, fluent in several languages and drawn to the literature of nineteenth-century French writers. She later came to know many of them personally through the literary salon she held in her home.
Emma married early and had three sons, Maurice, René, and Fernand, the latter dying as a young child. Widowed while still in her twenties, she returned to her parents’ home with her children. It was here, in 1888, that she met Richard Gottheil. They were married in Paris on September 18, 1891, and embarked for New York.
Before long, Gottheil was lecturing on French literature at Columbia University, translating French works into English, and making the acquaintance of prominent New York writers. At the same time, she immersed herself in Jewish affairs. Among her many projects were the Sisterhood of Temple Emanu-El, the Young Women’s Hebrew Association and the National Council of Jewish Women. On SabbathShabbat afternoons the observant Gottheil drew a diverse group of Jewish and non-Jewish academics and writers to her home.
At the Second Zionist Congress in 1898, Gottheil and her husband were official delegates of the Federation of American Zionists. Along with her father-in-law, she had convinced her husband to assume the presidency of this newly formed federation. Thoroughly charmed by Emma Gottheil, Theodore Herzl invited her to sit on the platform with him and translate his message into French, Italian, and English. Before she returned home, Herzl asked the “Frau Professor” to interest American women in Zionism.
The women of Temple Emanu-El did not respond to Gottheil’s message. Undaunted, she invited a young women’s club from the Lower East Side, the Daughters of Zion, to study with her. Within a few years, several Daughters of Zion groups were meeting throughout the city. When Henrietta Szold returned from Palestine in 1910, determined to form a national organization that could carry out practical work there, she asked Gottheil and five other members of the study groups to become the nucleus of a new organization, which came to be known as Hadassah. Gottheil stubbornly fought alongside Szold to convince the others that they could indeed manage their first project, sending nurses to Palestine.
Though her husband had left the ranks of Zionist leadership by 1914, Gottheil continued to take an active role, lecturing, writing, and organizing. When the American Zionists split ideologically in 1921 over the manner of fund-raising, Gottheil organized the Keren Hayesod Women’s League, Keren Hayesod being the fund-raising arm of the Zionist Organization of America. Ultimately, under Gottheil’s guidance, the Women’s League became a separate organization, the Women’s League for Palestine, dedicated to maintaining shelters for single women coming to Palestine as pioneers and, later, as refugees from Germany.
The French government awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor to Emma Gottheil in 1940, in recognition of her services to the cause of Franco-American friendship.
Emma Leon Gottheil died in New York City on June 11, 1947.
AJYB, 50:612; Cohen, Naomi W. Encounter with Emancipation (1984); Dash, Joan. Summoned to Jerusalem (1979); Feinstein, Marnin. American Zionism, 1884–1904 (1965); Gottheil, Emma Leon. Papers. AJA, Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati; Hadassah. Central and Historical Files. Hadassah Organization, NYC; Leon, Eva. Papers. AJA; Levin, Marlin. Balm in Gilead (1973); Lipsky, Louis. Memoirs in Profile (1975); Obituary. NYTimes, June 13, 1947, 23:5; WWIAJ (1926, 1928, 1938).
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Spungen, Norma. "Emma Leon Gottheil." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 9, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/gottheil-emma-leon>.