Bonnie K. Goodman
Bonnie K. Goodman
Librarian, Journalist and Historian

Jessie Sampter, the Forgotten Hero of the Zionist Movement

Jessie Ethel Sampter founder of Hadassah's School of Zionism

In honor of Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron, and Yom Haazmaut during an online class with Rabbi Neil Zuckerman at Park Avenue Synagogue0, we discussed important women in the Bible, Jewish history, and Zionist history. Towards the end of the class, we discussed Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg’s landmark collection of essays, The Zionist Idea (1959), and how it excluded women’s Zionist voices. We also discussed the updated anthology by McGill University historian Gil Troy, The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland — Then, Now, Tomorrow (2018), which includes women in the Zionist movement. We looked at one passage by poet Rachel Bluwstein, “My Country,” from 1926. I brought up that Jessie Ethel Sampter’s voice was not included in the anthology, although she was a contemporary of Bluwstein.

I discovered Jessie Sampter while a graduate student in the MA in Judaic Studies program at Concordia University in Montreal. I took a reading course on the pre-state of Israel Zionist movement, and I was writing a graduate research paper on Henrietta Szold, Hadassah, and the settlement house movement. Sampter was Szold’s protégé, learning almost everything about Judaism and Zionism from Szold. They remained close friends, and Szold also presided over Sampter’s funeral. Sampter first became involved in the settlement movement, which led to her involvement as a leader of Hadassah.[1]

Sampter was born in New York City in 1883 and died in 1938 in Palestine after making Aliyah in 1919. She was disabled after contracting Polio at thirteen years old. Although born Jewish, the wealthy Sampter family did not practice Judaism. Jessie was already the third generation of German Jews in America in her family. Her grandfather had a clothing manufacturing business, and her father was a lawyer, and the three generations lived a Fifth Avenue mansion. Jessie had only one sister, Elvie, who never followed Sampter in her love for Zionism and Judaism.

Sampter was sickly throughout her childhood, but after contracting Polio, she no longer attended school. The disability took from Jessie what she loved the most playing the violin. Sampter said when she played the violin, she ‘rose to heaven…I knew God.’ Her family hired a tutor, and she voraciously read, gaining her education this way. Sampter also discovered writing, and it replaced music as her creative outlet in life. Sampter’s disability was not the only tragedy in her life. Her father died of tuberculosis, and her grandfather lost his business, forcing the family to sell their home; no longer would the extended family live together. The combination of tragedies led Sampter to question her belief in God.

Sampter and her family, although technically German-Jewish. In her early life, Sampter tried Ethical Culture, atheism, Unitarianism, and socialism. Since Jessie’s father was friends with Felix Adler, the founder of the Ethical Culture Movement, and through their childhood, Sampter and her sister were raised in “positivist atheism.” Although they referred to themselves as atheists the traditions practiced in their home was closer to Christianity.

There was no trace of any Jewishness in the Sampter house; it was a complete break from the traditions of the old country. According to Antler, “Jessie described her family as ‘German-Jewish, third generation American upper middle class, well-to-do, completely assimilated, highly cultured bourgeois and individualistic.’ It was a family ‘where trefe (not kosher, unclean) meat was eaten as often as three times a day, where Christmas trees and easter eggs obliterated all traces of Hanukkah and Passover, whose prophet was not Moses but Darwin…. My maternal grandfather ate on Yom Kippur, and my paternal grandmother made fun of people who kept kosher.’ In this ‘godless house,’ she came to know about the existence of God through the servants; perhaps unknown to her family, she prayed to their God (Jesus Christ) nightly.”[2]

The defining moment in forming her religious identity and devotion to Judaism occurred when she was seven. When some other children came to her house and asked her if she was Jewish, Sampter denied it because being Jewish, in her opinion, was to be scorned. Except the servants would whisper calling the Sampter family Juedish, nothing else in the Sampter household indicated they Jewish. It seemed to Sampter that the children believed being a Jew was shameful, something of scorn equivalent, according to Sampter as being a “rag-picker, a gypsy or an idiot.”[3]

The moment had such powerful implications for Sampter that she wrote about in an unpublished novel “in the Beginning,” her unpublished memoirs “The Speaking Heart, and a journal article published close to the end of her life entitled “A Confession.” Antler quotes Sampter writing, “In the novel, she wrote that one of the children said she couldn’t be Jewish because ‘Jews have kinky black hair and black eyes like niggers, and a hook nose,’ and she instantly surmised that to be Jewish was to be inferior.” Sampter recounted her in memoir, “And yet from that moment I was Jewish. I suffered because I could not go back and reclaim myself with those children. I was something that had been scorned, and I must vindicate it to the ends of the earth.”[4]

Sampter finally returned to her Jewish roots in her teenage years and twenties. Sampter would have four mentors, three of them women that brought her close to Judaism and Zionism. Immigrant writer Mary Antin introduced Sampter to Judaism. They met at a reception for author Israel Zangwill when Sampter was eighteen. They started sharing letters as teenagers, discussing their academic interests and books they read. One of their frequent topics was Judaism and Jewry; Jessie got her first education on East European Jewry from Mary. Josephine Lazarus, Emma’s sister, and Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, introduced her to the Bible, the Hebrew language, and the history of Judaism, and its laws. Jessie saw Lazarus as a mother figure for intellectual and spiritual matters.

Sampter tried going to synagogue, both Orthodox and Reform, but she felt that none of these denominations was suitable for her, and after Lazarus died, Sampter returned to Unitarian Church. Although she wanted to believe in the Jewish religion, she did not feel comfortable belonging to the two synagogues that American Jews prayed. She described the Orthodox as “everybody prayed at once, you couldn’t hear yourself.” If she found Orthodox too loud, she found Reform too Christian and described it as an “unconscious hypocrisy, an attempt to warm up to safe lukewarmness the religion that had cold.”[5] In describing their synagogue services, Sampter claims, “Nobody seemed to care about anything except to show how they hadn’t quite stopped being Jewish.”[6] Hyman Segal introduced Sampter to Szold, who would be her greatest teacher, leading her to Zionism.

Sampter, writing about here the origins of her new Jewishness consciousness explained, “Miss Lazarus was a Zionist; at that time, Zionism was no more than a word to me, and she did not explain; but she kept Christmas as we did, and she observed Sunday, and most of her friends were Gentiles, whereas most of mine were Jews…. Yet she treasured the Jewish spirit, she lived with the Bible, and she and Mary, both half merged in the Gentile world, were the two human links with my people, the Jewish people from which I had been cut off.”[7]

Starting in February 1914, Sampter became in charge of Zionist Education for Hadassah. Except for Hadassah early Zionists did not create any individual and specific Zionist education programs. Instead, the Federation of American Zionists used to their magazine The Maccabaean, which they called “a magazine of Jewish life and letters,” to educate their members and readers about Zionism. In 1915, Sampter founded Hadassah’s School of Zionism, where she taught classes and wrote, compiled, and edited educational textbooks and materials. In 1917, at Hadassah’s convention, they voted for three education resolutions, to learn Hebrew, use Hadassah’s library and create chapter study circles. Sampter’s published materials were also used by the Federation of American Zionists’ and the Zionist Organization of America’s Department of Education.

Sampter believed “education stood as the foundation of the Zionist movement.” According to historian Carol Ingall, “Sampter asked Hadassah members, ‘Are we willing not to stand upon platforms and shout to a crowd, but to sit together in the room and study maps and figures? It is intensive work without glory, or both teachers and pupils it means digging trenches, digging in the dark, digging for light.’” In 1920, she edited “A Course Zionism,” which went through three editions. [8] According to historian Baila R. Shargel, Sampter “was considered Zionism’s premier educator in America at that time.” [9] Ingall indicates that “Hadassah’s educational program proved integral to its mission and purpose. Hadassah leaders firmly believed that in order to build an organization of women committed to Zionism, they had to train a cadre of educated volunteers to spread Zionist education and ideals throughout the United States.” [10]

Tamar De Sola Pool, who later headed Hadassah wrote of the Zionist education program created by Szold and Sampter. De Sola Pool praised, “Miss Szold never ceased to proclaim and enjoin the command of study. A school of Zionism headed by one of her most remarkable colleagues, Jessie Sampter, was the cradle of many of Hadassah’s leaders. But Zionism could not stop in the classroom or on the platform. She considered deeds more important than words. Lip service had no place in the Szold vocabulary: espousal of an idea meant acceptance of responsibility. She looked upon study and knowledge as the bases of action, the underpinning of her philosophy of Zionism. And dedication topped knowledge.”[11]

Sampter was a poet, and she is most known in the secular world for her book of poetry “The Seekers” in 1910, named after the club of Jewish girls Sampter headed in 1909. [12] Sampter’s first book was The Great Adventurer was published in 1908 and inspired by her mentor Josephine Lazarus. To the disappointment of American Zionist leaders, Sampter and Szold became involved in Pacifism during World War I. Sampter was a lifetime Pacifist, and she wrote the poetry collection, The Coming of Peace in 1919. [13] Sampter also wrote Jewish poetry, and in 1920 she published, “Around the Year in Rhymes for the Jewish Child.” [14]

For nearly twenty years, Sampter would live in pre-state, Israel renouncing her American citizenship. In 1919, Sampter left for Palestine, taking on a task for the Zionist Organization chronicling Hadassah’s medical unit. At first, she lived in Jerusalem, where she became at the forefront of progressive Judaism, giving women an equal place in the practicing Judaism conducting the Sabbath and prayer services and religious singing, which Orthodoxy did not allow. Szold joined in these prayer endeavors, where the group dropped prayer for the Messiah to return the Jews to Israel. Ever the socialist, soon Sampter found the country beckoning to her. Sampter first made her home in Rehovot, with Leah Berlin and her mother.

Then in 1933, Sampter made her home at the kibbutz at Givat Brenner, where she established a vegetarian convalescent home. To Sampter, a kibbutz embodied Labor Zionism and a “mass experiment in living socialism,” allowing her to “come home,” “spiritually and socially.” [15] The kibbutz was also the ultimate congregation, allowing Sampter an “inner realization, the experience of eternity… Judaism, frozen so long by exile, hate, and oppression… completely fluid.” [16]

While in Palestine, all Sampter’s writing was devoted to Israel and promoted a peaceful co-existence between Jews and Arabs, such as The Emek, a collection of fifteen poems published in 1927. Sampter wrote an unpublished memoir about her time on the kibbutz and a novel “In the Beginning” looking at a couple Zionist olim, one from America the other from Russia. The novel gave women equality to men,” ending with the husband expressing about their unborn child, “And why shouldn’t a girl be the Messiah.” [17] Sampter contributed a chapter to the Zionist anthology, Modern Palestine: A Symposium in 1933. Sampter’s last publication released after her death in 1939, was a translation of H.N. Bialik’s poems, Far Over the Sea: Poems and Jingles for Children.

In the last year of her life, 1937, Sampter published a collection of poetry honoring Israel, Brand Plucked from the Fire. In 1938, reviewer Felix N. Gerson described the volume a collection of poems that give a “voice” to Sampter’s “hope” and “fear” and “love of her people.” Gerson writes, “In her lyric and in her prophetic lines there breathe the indomitable spirit of Israel and its travail together with the serene expectation of the ultimate redemption of her beloved Zion.” [18]

Sampter remained committed to Jewish and Zionist education in Israel, establishing the Yishuv’s first Jewish Scout camp in 1920 and helping the Yemenite Jewish women settling in Israel. She founded “classes and clubs” for Yemenite Jewish girls and educational programs for the Yemenite immigrant women. Sampter yearned to be a mother, and in 1922 she adopted a Yemenite orphaned toddler she named Tamar. The move to Israel and the toils of the kibbutz inflamed Sampter’s health problems, and on November 25, 1938, at 55 years old, Sampter died of malaria and heart disease. Sampter journey seeking her identity led her to discover and live her life as a “Socialist, a Zionist, and An American, and a Jew.” [19]

Historians, even Jewish historians, have overlooked Sampter’s contribution to the American Zionist movement. Joyce Antler included Sampter in her chapter on Szold and Sampter in her 1997 book, The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America. Shulamit Reinharz and Mark A. Raider also mention Sampter in passing in their 2005 book American Jewish Women and the Zionist Enterprise. Carol K. Ingall’s 2011 book, The Women Who Reconstructed American Jewish Education, 1910–1965, included a chapter, “Jessie Sampter and the Hadassah School of Zionism, 1883–1938,” on Sampter’s contributions to education. At the same time, Meir Chazen has a chapter on Sampter’s years living in a kibbutz, “The Wise Woman of Givat Brenner”: Jessie Sampter on Kibbutz, War, and Peace, 1934–1938″ in the 2015 book, The Individual in History: Essays in Honor of Jehuda Reinharz edited by ChaeRan Y. Freeze, Sylvia Fuks Fried, and Eugene R. Sheppard.

The most complete study on Sampter’s life is a 1995 Master’s thesis from McGill University, “Jessie Sampter: A Pioneer Feminist in American Zionism,” by Susan Blanshay; historian Eugene Ornstein was her supervisor.[20] Blanshay argues, “Sampter is worthy of study as she represents a unique phenomenon. In a period when the conventional middle-class woman’s primary role in life was that of housewife and mother, Sampter remained unmarried throughout her life. In a day when the majority of German Jews in the United States accepted Reform Judaism and rejected Jewish nationalism in favour of assimilation to American ways, Sampter embraced both her Jewish heritage and the concept of Jewish peoplehood. At a time when the typical American Jew was either non-Zionist or actively anti-Zionist, Sampter adopted the ideology of Zionism as her personal motivation in life. Lastly, in a period when mainstream American Zionists saw Palestine simply as a haven for persecuted Jews, Sampter claimed Palestine as her home.”

Historian Sarah Imhoff has been writing a full biography on Sampter, focusing on her sexuality as a contradiction to Zionist ideals. Sampter lived with a woman during her years in Palestine, “wrote of homoerotic longings,” but did not define herself as a lesbian.[21] Imhoff argues, Sampter “spent most of her adult life passionately arguing for — though also subtly critiquing — Zionism. But Zionism championed strong bodies, working the land, pioneering, and reproduction and Sampter did none of these things.” [22] However, historian Joyce Antler claims that while heading the girls’ clubs at Hadassah Sampter fell in love with a man, a fellow Zionist, who admired her mind but did not reciprocate her love; instead, he chose a girl in Sampter’s group. Sampter later wrote of her yearning, “Can an unmarried woman remain in normal? Why was I denied my essential right doomed to a hunger that I could not kill?”[23] As years go by scholars are defining Sampter as a queer Zionist. Imhoff explains, “‘queer’ is a better analytical fit … Sampter’s biography offers a chance for us to theorize how we translate an embodied past into something legible and relevant in the present.” [24]

Sampter’s contributions were extensive to Zionism, education, and women’s history. Still, she too often overlooked, as she did not define the attributes of a robust Jewish and Zionist leader, a woman, disabled, sickly, and queer. My research focuses on her contribution to Jewish education and is tentatively entitled, “Teaching America to Love Israel: Jessie Sampter, Hadassah and the emergence of Zionist Education in America.” Sampter’s position in the history of Jewish and Zionist education needs to be finally respected, and no volume on Zionism should forget her ever again.

LIST OF JESSIE SAMPTER’S PUBLICATIONS

Sampter, Jessie E. The Seekers. New York: M. Kennerley, 1910.

Sampter, Jessie E. A Course in Zionism. New York: Federation of American Zionists, 1915.

Sampter, Jessie E. What Our History Means. New York: Judean Press, 1916.

Sampter, Jessie E. The Book of the Nations =: Sefer Ha-Goyim. New York : E.P. Dutton & Co., 1917.

Sampter, Jessie E. The Last Candles: A Dramatic Sketch for Chanukah. New York: Dept. of Education Zionist Organization of America, 1918.

Sampter, Jessie E. The Coming of Peace. New York, 1919.

Sampter, Jessie E. Geography of Palestine. New York: Young Judaea, 1920.

Sampter, Jessie E. Around the Year in Rhymes for the Jewish Child. New York: Bloch Pub. Co, 1920.

Sampter, Jessie E. Candle Drill for Hanukka. New York: Bloch Pub. Co, 1922.

Sampter, Jessie E. The Emek. New York: Bloch Pub. Co, 1927.

Sampter, Jessie E. Modern Palestine: A Symposium. New York: Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization of America, 1933.

Sampter, Jessie. Brand Plucked from the Fire. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publ. Society, 1937.

Sampter, Jessie E. Yesha’ Sempṭer: Le-yom Ha-Sheloshim. Giv’at Brener: Ḳibuts Giv’at Brener, 1938.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

American Jewish Historical Society, Paula E. Hyman, Deborah Dash Moore, eds, Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, New York: Routledge; 1 edition, 1997.

Antler, Joyce. The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America. New York: Schocken Books, 1998.

Antler, Joyce. “Zion in Our Hearts: Henrietta Szold and the American Jewish Women’s Movement.” In Daughter of Zion: Henrietta Szold and American Jewish Womanhood. Ed. Barry Kessler. Baltimore: Jewish Historical Society of Maryland, 1995. Reprinted in American Jewish Women’s History: A Reader, ed. Pamela S. Nadell, 129–149. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

Blanshay, Susan. “Jessie Sampter: A Pioneer Feminist in American Zionism.” MA diss. McGill University, 1995.

Cohen, Naomi W. The Americanization of Zionism, 1897–1948. Hanover, N.H: Brandeis University Press, 2003.

Chazen, Meir. “The Wise Woman of Givat Brenner”: Jessie Sampter on Kibbutz, War, and Peace, 1934–1938,” in Freeze, ChaeRan Y., et al., editors. The Individual in History: Essays in Honor of Jehuda Reinharz. Brandeis University Press, 2015.

Dinin, Samuel. Zionist Education in the United States: A Survey. New York: Zionist Organization of America, 1944.

Ingall, Carol K. The Women Who Reconstructed American Jewish Education, 1910–1965. Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2010

Raider, Mark A. The Emergence of American Zionism. New York: NYU Press, 1998.

Reinharz, Shulamit, and Mark A. Raider. American Jewish Women and the Zionist Enterprise. Waltham, Mass: Brandeis University Press, 2005.

Shargel, Baila R. “Jessie Ethel Sampter.” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women’s Archive. <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/sampter-jessie-ethel>.

SHARGEL, BAILA ROUND. “American Jewish Women in Palestine: Bessie Gotsfeld, Henrietta Szold, and the Zionist Enterprise.” American Jewish History, vol. 90, no. 2, 2002, pp. 141–160. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23887243.

SIMMONS, ERICA. “Playgrounds and Penny Lunches in Palestine: American Social Welfare in the Yishuv.” American Jewish History, vol. 92, no. 3, 2004, pp. 263–297. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23887300.

[1] Shargel, Baila R.. “Jessie Ethel Sampter.” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women’s Archive. <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/sampter-jessie-ethel>.

[2] Joyce Antler, The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America, (New York: Schocken Books, 1998), Antler, The Journey Home, 110.

[3] Ibid., Antler, The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America, 110.

[4] Ibid., Antler, The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America, 110.

[5] Ibid., Antler, The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America, 112.

[6] Ibid., Antler, The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America, 112.

[7] Ibid., Antler, The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America, 112.

[8] https://archive.org/details/guidetozionism00samprich

[9] Antler, The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America, 112.

[10] Carol K. Ingall, The Women Who Reconstructed American Jewish Education, 1910–1965, (Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2010), 49.

[11] Tamar de Sola Pool, “Henerietta Szold [1860–1945]” in Simon Noveck, ed. Great Jewish Personalities in Modern Times, 324.

[12] https://archive.org/details/seekers01samp/page/n9/mode/2up

[13] https://archive.org/details/comingofpeace00sampiala/mode/2up

[14] https://archive.org/details/aroundyearinrhy00sampgoog/mode/2up

[15] Antler, The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America, 124.

[16] Ibid., Antler, The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America, 124.

[17] Ibid., Antler, The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America, 125.

[18] Gerson, Felix N. “Jessie Sampter’s ‘Brand Plucked from the Fire.’” The Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 28, no. 3, 1938, pp. 285–287. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1452049.

[19] Antler, The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America, 125.

[20] https://escholarship.mcgill.ca/concern/theses/bz60cz62k

[21] https://blogs.brandeis.edu/freshideasfromhbi/the-lives-of-jessie-sampter/

[22] https://sacredmattersmagazine.com/on-gender-and-american-judaism-7-questions-with-sarah-imhoff/

[23] Antler, The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America, 112.

[24] https://blogs.brandeis.edu/freshideasfromhbi/the-lives-of-jessie-sampter/

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS is a journalist, librarian, and historian. She is the author of Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896, The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish goal of whiteness in the South, and the viral article, “OTD in History… October 19, 1796, Alexander Hamilton accuses Thomas Jefferson of having an affair with his slave creating a 200-year-old controversy over Sally Hemings.”

Ms. Goodman has a BA in History and Art History, and a Masters in Library and Information Studies both from McGill University has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies focused on Medieval and Modern Judaism. Her research area is North American Jewish history, particularly American Jewish history, and her thesis was entitled, “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Antisemitism, 1860–1913.”

Ms. Goodman contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is the former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com, where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She currently blogs at Medium, where she was a top writer in history and regularly writes on “On This Day in History (#OTD in #History)” Feature and on the Times of Israel. Her scholarly articles can be found on Academia.edu. She has over a dozen years of experience in education and political journalism.

About the Author
Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS is a journalist, librarian, and historian. She has a BA in History & Art History, and an MLIS, Masters in Library and Information Studies both from McGill University. She has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program, where her thesis was entitled, "Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Anti-Semitism, 1860-1913." She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896,” and contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, Judaism, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education and political journalism. She is currently expanding her article about Confederate cabinet secretary Judah Benjamin "The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish goal of whiteness in the South" into a full-length biography.
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