Mary Fels

Mary Fels used her wealth and her talents as a writer and editor to further the Zionist cause, arguing passionately for a Jewish state and helping create both settlements and industry in Israel. Both Fels and her husband, a successful soap manufacturer, felt their wealth gave them a responsibility to reform capitalism and use their money for philanthropy. After her husband died in 1914, Fels wrote a biography of him, Joseph Fels: His Life-Work, outlining their shared values. She served as editor of The Public: A Journal of Democracy from 1917–1919, writing editorials supporting labor rights, women’s suffrage, and civil rights, as well as her belief that Palestine should be given to the Jews. She established the Joseph Fels Foundation to educate both Jews and non-Jews on the history of Israel and the importance of a Jewish homeland. In the 1920s she served as vice president of B’nai Benjamin, an organization of farmers in Palestine. Fels also continued her husband’s support for financial reform through a single tax system based on land values, and supported public land use by funding the Vacant Lot Cultivation Society, which helped establish school gardens.


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OneI knew Mary Fels well, being the son of her attorney, who, with my mother, served on the Fels Foundation board from the 1930’s, and assumed leadership of the foundation from Mary’s death until it’s planned dissolution some 20 years later. This article contains some gaps in this extraordinary woman’s life, such as her and Joseph’s communal life in Philadelphia with “Red Emma” Goldstien, their warm friendship with next-door neighbor Walt Whitman, associations with British Fabian Socialists Beatrice and Sidney Webb, their friendships with Sir George Bernard Shaw, Stafford Crips and other pivotal intellectual and political figures of the day. One important omission, or, rather, error, in this article, is the assertion that Mrs. Fels believed Palestine should be “given to” the Jewish people. Rather than assert my primary knowledge of her, and of the political faction in the Yeshuv which she bankrolled, namely, the Nilim, I refer the sceptical reader to the document Mary Fels signed, which she had helped compose, on behalf of the Zionist Organization of America, along with Stephen S. Wise, Chaim Weizmann, Lord Walter Rothschild and others, which explicitly states, “ being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which shall orejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine....”

In reply to by Robert Green

To clarify the document quoted above, it is the 1919 Founding Document, titled, “Jewish Proposal for a Jewish Homeland “ presented by the Zionist Organization to the Paris Peace Conference, 1919.

With her husband, Joseph, and after his death, Mary Fels (1863 – 1953) used his fortune to crusade for many political and philanthropic causes, most notably Jewish settlement in Palestine and Israel.

Institution: American Jewish Historical Society.

Date of Birth


Date of Death

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Mary Fels ." (Viewed on May 10, 2021) <>.


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