This Day in Jewish History

1886: A Pillar of American Zionism Who Married for Love Is Born

Irma Lindheim didn't just advocate for the cause: She moved herself and her 5 kids to a kibbutz.

Irma Levy Lindheim, seated in middle, with Golda Meir, seated on left, and others. Photo taken at Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek.
A. Amber, Courtesy of Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek

December 9, 1886, is the birthdate of Irma Levy Lindheim, one of American Zionism’s most committed, independent-thinking and free-spirited activists, who served as Henrietta Szold’s successor as president of Hadassah - and who at age 47, a widow with five children, moved to pre-state Israel and became a kibbutznik.

Born in New York, Irma Levy grew up in a totally secularized family of German-Jewish descent. Her father, Robert Levy, was a successful importer whose family had already been in the United States for several generations; her mother was the former Mathilda Morgenstern. Irma was the youngest of their three daughters.

After graduating from Dr. Sachs’ Collegiate Institute for Girls, in 1907 Irma married her heart’s choice, Norvin Lindheim, a lawyer, in defiance of her father, who believed he should pick his daughters’ mates for them.

After America’s entry into World War I, Irma, though she had a five-month baby at home, volunteered herself and her Cadillac for (domestic) service in the U.S. Motor Corps.

Norvin did not serve. Perhaps is was that, combined with his representing German companies in the U.S., that led to his being suspected of disloyalty to his country. Following the war, he was prosecuted and convicted on charges of false reporting regarding German property in the U.S.

Although he was eventually exonerated on appeal, that happened only in 1928, after he had served a brief prison sentence -- and after his premature death, that same year, at age 47.

Fortunately for Norvin’s family, Irma had inherited a substantial amount from her father, and money was never a concern.

'The virus of Zionism'

Irma’s interest in Zionism, which also led to a Jewish awakening for her, had begun around 1917, when, through relatives of Norvin’s, she was introduced to American Zionists and Palestinian Jews. As she later wrote, overnight she found herself “attacked by the virus of Zionism.”

She also began slowly introducing Jewish customs into her family’s life, starting with replacing Christmas with the observance of Hanukkah. And she became deeply involved with the Hadassah Zionist Women’s Organization.

In 1922, partly to distract herself during her husband’s legal travails, Irma left the children with a nanny at the family home on Long Island, settled into her Manhattan apartment and began studying both at the Jewish Institute of Religion, newly founded by Reform Rabbi Stephen Wise (the institute later merged with the Hebrew Union College) and at Columbia University’s Teachers College, with the great educational theorist John Dewey. 

She actually requested, and received permission, to enter the institute’s rabbinical program, but her growing passion for Zionism led her to leave school after three years.

Touring Palestine on horseback

During her first trip to Palestine, in 1925 –the subject of her 1928 book, “The Immortal Adventure” -- Lindheim toured the country on horseback with Zionist pioneer Manya Shohat.

The following year, she accepted the presidency of Hadassah, which she held for two years, until 1928. The day her husband died, Irma was in Nashville, one stop on a long speaking tour for the organization. She received word of his death by phone, and then proceeded to deliver her address to an unsuspecting audience.

Lindheim’s long relationship with the non-partisan Hadassah was complicated by her conversion to Labor Zionism and her identification with the Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz movement. The most dramatic expression of that was her decision to settle, in 1933, on Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek.

Though she was sometimes away for years at a time – in 1948, she even ran, unsuccessfully, for a seat in the U.S. Congress in Queens, New York.

For Lindheim, Zionism was not just a political movement, but also a vehicle for personal self-realization. Convinced of the redemptive value of working the land, this New York heiress pushed for the development of the Negev, and also spoke out for Arab-Jewish reconciliation and against the military rule of the country’s Arab citizens in Israel’s early decades. She also was a strong advocate of Jewish and Zionist education among American youth.

Irma Lindheim with a baby at Kibbutz Mishmar Haemek, 1973.
Courtesy of Kibbutz Mishmar Haemek

Mishmar Ha’emek would remain her home until the end of her life. But Lindheim died on April 10, 1978, at the home of one of her sons, in Berkeley, California. She was 92.