With seemingly limitless energy, Sarah Kussy helped found and lead major Jewish organizations such as Hadassah, the United Synagogue Women’s League, and Young Judea. In 1906, Kussy became part of the first graduating class of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Teacher’s College and began her 35-year teaching career. In 1912 she became a founding member of Hadassah, serving for many years on its executive board, and in 1926 she became president of the northern New Jersey region. In 1918 she helped found the Women’s League, serving variously as board member, chair of the propaganda committee and education committee, lecturer, and writer for Outlook, the League’s periodical. She later helped found Young Judea and wrote an unpublished memoir of her parents and the immigrant community of Newark.
Sarah Kussy was a versatile and accomplished leader of American Jewry who devoted her educational training and organizational skills to the community throughout her long life. She was a founder and leader of a constellation of significant Jewish organizations, including Hadassah and the United Synagogue Women’s League, both of which named her an honorary national vice president. Through her many associations, Kussy worked to change the face of Jewish education, Zionist activities, and women’s participation in Jewish American communal life. Her energy, erudition, and leadership inspired Jewish women and educators across North America.
Early Life and Career
Born in Newark, New Jersey, on June 27, 1869, Kussy was the fourth child of six born to one of Newark’s most established Jewish families. In later years, Kussy wrote a chronicle, never published, of her parents’ history since their mid-nineteenth-century arrival in America. In this evocative memoir, she chronicled not only the fortunes of one immigrant family, but, through their experiences, the rise of an entire Jewish community. Gustav Kussy, born in Kraschowitz, Bohemia, in the Austrian Empire, and Bella (Bloch) Kussy, born and raised in Germany, managed a successful butcher shop in Newark while maintaining a traditional Jewish home for their six children: Bertha, Meyer, Herman, Sarah, Nathan, and Joseph, as well as a set of twins who died. Sarah was very close to her older sister Bertha, who partly raised her; Bertha washed her, dressed her, made her clothing, and taught her how to read before she entered school.
Kussy's parents’ emphasis on education, both religious and secular, was transmitted to her throughout her formative years. After completing public school and studies at New York University’s Extension Department, she attended the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Teachers Institute and graduated in its first class, in 1906. She became a teacher in several schools in the Newark area, teaching for 35 years at Camden Street Public School, at Congregation Oheb Shalom’s religious school (of which her father was one of the founders), and at several other Hebrew schools in the city.
Hadassah and Zionist Work
In 1912, Kussy was one of a small group of women who joined Henrietta Szold in founding Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization. She was raised with very Zionist values, as her father heavily identified himself with Israel and was passionate about the nation’s future. Kussy served for many years on Hadassah’s national executive board and in 1926 founded the Newark chapter. Under her leadership as president of the entire northern New Jersey region, Newark and its surroundings soon ranked among the most active Hadassah branches in the nation. In 1918, Kussy worked with Matilda Schechter to found the National Women’s League of the United Synagogue of America (the organizational body of Conservative synagogues). She served on the league’s national board for decades, chairing its organization and propaganda committee and its education committee, lecturing for its speakers’ bureau, and writing numerous articles for Outlook, the league’s publication.
Not content to limit her Jewish activities to women’s organizations, Kussy helped to found the American Jewish Congress and Young Judaea. She served as a delegate to the Jewish Agency for Palestine, the United Synagogue of America, the American Jewish Conference, and the Jewish Welfare Board. She visited and spoke in cities throughout the United States, Europe, and Palestine, and was also a delegate to five World Zionist Congresses in Switzerland and Austria between 1907 and 1939. Responding to widespread missionary efforts among Jews in her native Newark, she organized a campaign against the “Christianization” of Jewish children. Her motivation to embark on the campaign might be traced back to her childhood, and the values parents instilled within her. In her unpublished memoir, Kussy wrote, “Many a time mother would say: ‘A Jewish child must never do so and so; the morals of a Jew must always be above reproach.’ My parents believed and taught that. So whenever I hear the much-used, much-abused, mis-applied term, ‘Christian Character,’ I shrug my shoulders. Why Christian?" In a more secular realm, Kussy was active in the Newark and New Jersey Teachers Associations, and in the League of Women Voters.
Sarah Kussy died in Newark on October 2, 1956. Toward the end of her life, she was honored by a number of organizations. She received a citation for Jewish cultural leadership from the Jewish Education Association of Essex County, New Jersey, and saw the Newark Hadassah chapter renamed after her. Perhaps the most enduring tribute to her tireless work and Zionist commitment came in 1950, when the Northern New Jersey branch of Hadassah donated ten thousand trees to Israel to be planted as the Sarah Kussy Forest. It is this living tribute, as well as the organizations Kussy helped to found, that preserves the memory of this remarkable and gifted leader of American Jewry.
“Reminiscences of Jewish Life in Newark, NJ.” YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science 6 (1951): 177–186.
The Story of Gustav and Bella Kussy of Newark, N.J.: A Family Chronicle (n.d.).
The Women’s League Handbook and Guide (1947).
Obituary. NYTimes, October 3, 1956, 33:3.