March 22, 1883, is the birthdate of Jessie Sampter, a most untypical Zionist leader in the early decades of the 20th century who nonetheless left her mark on the movement, both in the United States and in pre-state Palestine.
It’s not just that she was a woman and an American, when the dominant figures in the movement were Eastern European men. Sampter was also physically disabled and of frail health. Yet she gave up a life of privilege and relative comfort to make her life in the Land of Israel, where she stubbornly promoted her vision of pacifism, Arab-Jewish coexistence and economic and social equality.
Tref and Christmas trees
Jessie Ethel Sampter was born in New York, the second of the two daughters of Rudolph Sampter and the former Virginia Kohlberg. Rudolph’s father, Michael Sampter, was a German Jew who begun as a tailor and, with the help provided by his wife, Rachel, built a clothing manufacture business. Their son Rudolph, a lawyer, was very active in the Ethical Culture movement, a secular-humanist group that was popular among German Jews in New York.
Jessie grew up in an atmosphere of “positivist atheism,” in a family, as she wrote as an adult, “where trefe meat was eaten as often as three times a day, where Christmas trees and Easter eggs obliterated all traces of Hanukkah and Passover”
At age 13, Jessie contracted polio, which left her disabled, following which she was educated privately at home. A lot of her education consisted of her own reading, an activity whose meaning, she once wrote to a friend, was “to find the solution, the meaning of life, perhaps one word.”
After her Ethical Culture education, Sampter tried Jewish Orthodoxy and Reform, and finally Unitarianism, but found all to be spiritually lacking for her. In 1910, she published a book, “The Seekers,” in which she chronicled two years of meetings she had held with a group of like-minded young men and women at her home, in which they discussed matters of spirit and philosophy.
On the basis of that book – her second, after a novel, “The Great Adventurers,” published a year earlier, when she was 25 – Sampter was invited to study at Clark University on a graduate track, despite having no formal college education. She decided, however, to pursue a different path, devoting herself to Zionist education.
Introduction to Hadassah
Sampter’s introduction to Zionism had come through friendships with immigrant writer Mary Antin, Josephine Lazarus, a writer and thinker (and the sister of Emma Lazarus), and, most significantly, Henrietta Szold, who founded the Hadassah Women’s Organization before moving to Palestine in 1920.
Under the influence of Szold, Sampter began to learn about the lives of Eastern European immigrants in the U.S., and eventually moved into a New York settlement house, which provided educational, health and social services to destitute immigrant families. She then began writing educational materials for Hadassah, including the 1915 textbook, “A Course in Zionism.” As director of Hadassah’s “School for Zionism,” she oversaw lectures, girls’ clubs and correspondence courses on the topic. She was also a prolific poet.
Finally, in 1919, Sampter gave up her American citizenship and moved to Palestine. At first she lived in Jerusalem, where she devoted herself to the cause of education among Jewish girls who had emigrated from Yemen, where females were generally denied an education. She also adopted a Yemenite orphan girl herself.
Her next stop was Rehovot, where she established the country’s first Scouts’ camp. Finally, in 1933, having become committed to the socialist ideals of the kibbutz movement, Sampter moved to the nearby Kibbutz Givat Brenner, where she offered to fund the construction of a vegetarian convalescent home and operate it, together with her companion, Leah Berlin.
After due consideration, the kibbutz accepted their offer, and Sampter and Berlin moved to Givat Brenner.
Jessie Sampter, who was always of fragile health, died on November 25, 1938, as a result of both heart disease and malaria. After her death, the convalescent home was renamed Beit Yesha in her memory (“Yesha” was Jessie’s name in Hebrew); it continued operating until 1982.