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Bessie Gotsfeld


GOTSFELD, BESSIE (1888–1962), U.S. social worker and Zionist. Born Beilka Goldstein in Przemsyl, a middle-sized city in southeastern Poland, this daughter of a religiously Orthodox yet modern family was educated in a Polish gymnasium. In 1905, her family migrated to New York, where Beilka became Bessie. In 1909 she married Mendel Gotsfeld, her English tutor. A Zionist since her youth in Poland, Gotsfeld's interest in the movement was rekindled through contact with Mizrachi leaders Rabbis Wolf Gold and Meir Berlin. Thereafter she dedicated her life to religious Zionism. She cherished Mizrachi's objective, which was to secure "the land of Israel for the people of Israel, in accordance with the law of Israel."

In 1925 she founded a national organization, Mizrachi Women of America (which after 1982 became known as Amit). MWOA's double objective was to give voice to the inchoate desire of Orthodox women for a gendered connection to the new Zionist settlement in Palestine and to widen educational and vocational opportunities for the female Orthodox population of Ereẓ Israel.

To investigate the feasibility of starting a school, Gotsfeld traveled there in 1929–30 and selected a Jerusalem building to refurbish as a technical school. En route home, she contacted European women's groups and solicited their support. She convinced Orthodox women in Europe and America that this school would foster Zionism and religion. Skilled young women would contribute to the economy of the new settlement, put a new face on Orthodoxy, and assure continuity into the next generation.

In 1931 the Gotsfelds settled permanently in Tel Aviv and Bessie became the official (though unpaid) "Palestine representative of MWOA." At her suggestion and under her supervision MWOA founded three urban vocational schools for adolescent girls and two large farm villages that instructed girls and boys along similar lines. The largest, Kefar Batya in Ra'ananah, bears her Hebrew given name. MWOA also constructed children's homes in small settlements, supported day care centers in the cities, and funded youth programs. Gotsfeld kept the MWOA membership informed through letters, bulletins, and speaking tours in the United States.

Gotsfeld was caught up in the fierce battles between secular and Orthodox Jews over the education of child refugees who found their way to Palestine before, during, and after World War II. She found places in Orthodox institutions for Youth Aliyah children and immigrants from Arab countries. No other branch of Mizrachi matched MWOA's accomplishments during the pre-state years. Along with Hadassah and Pioneer Women, the other major American women's Zionist organizations, MWOA played a critical role in building the Yishuv.

Gotsfeld retired officially in 1948 but maintained a grip on organizational policy until her death in 1962. Her whirlwind activities over three decades is remarkable in light of illness and mounting disabilities suffered through most of her adult life. The institutions that she founded exemplify the process of modernization within 20th century Orthodox Judaism. They trained a generation of Orthodox female technicians and teachers competent in advanced methods of pedagogy, agriculture, and technology, and eager to assert their status as equal citizens of the new state.

Sources:L.M. Goldfeld, "Bessie," Amit pamphlet (n.d.); B.R. Shargel, "American Jewish Women in Palestine: Bessie Gotsfeld, Henrietta Szold, and the Zionist Enterprise," in: American Jewish History (2002); idem, "'Never a Rubber Stamp,' Bessie Gotsfeld, Founder of Mizrachi Women of America," in: American Jewish Women and the Zionist Enterprise (2005).

[Baila Round Shargel (2nd ed.)]

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