As Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) arrives on April 15, North Carolinians can celebrate its own legacy of Zionist achievement. The South has long been typified as ambivalent about Zionism, given its legacy in Reform Judaism, which in its 1885 Platform rejected Jewish nationalism. Prominent southern Reform rabbis, affirming their Americanism, spoke against it. Rabbi Moses Jacobson of Asheville regarded “Zionism as a supreme folly, a dire menace.” While the Rabbi fulminated, his community had by 1904 organized a Zionist society that grew to over 120 members.
Early synagogue minutes record support for the Jewish settlement in Palestine as a response to what was then called “the Jewish Problem” of a homeless, persecuted people. Zionism grew across the South especially after the arrival of East European Jewish immigrants. In 1901 Durham Jews purchased shares in the Jewish Colonial Bank, and Ladies Aid Societies collected funds for Palestinian relief. Even in the early 1900s, there was movement between North Carolina and Palestine. Rev. Laibel Swartz left Durham in the early 1900s to settle there. In 1909 Henry and Mina Weil of Goldsboro, Reform Jews of German origin, visited Palestine where they toured Jewish colonies. Mina Weil and her descendants, particularly her daughter Gertrude, provided state Zionist leadership for generations. When her sister-in-law Sarah Weil founded the North Carolina Association of Jewish Women in 1921, the organization committed to the Zionist cause.
In the case of the Weils the Zionist commitment was enhanced by the family’s ties to the Szold family of Baltimore. North Carolina’s Jewish community held family, religious, and commercial ties to Baltimore, and Rabbi Benjamin Szold and his daughter Henrietta, who founded Hadassah in 1912, served the state’s Jews religiously and institutionally. The Weils had been married by Rabbi Szold, and Henrietta was Mina’s friend. By the 1930s North Carolina held eight Hadassah chapters. Henrietta Szold came to North Carolina in 1931, stopping first in Goldsboro to visit the Weils and then traveling to Wilmington where she spoke before 300. Gertrude Weil would serve as a regional Hadassah officer, and Sara Evans of Durham would become a national vice president. The state-supported eight Hadassah chapters, and chapters of Mizrachi, the Orthodox Zionist women’s society, also formed.
Emissaries, often women, arrived to enlist American support. In 1916 Madame Pevsner, a Russian Zionist, visited Durham, inspiring Fanny Gladstein to start a Zionist Society. In 1916 Mrs. Pavlov came from Palestine and her visit to Kinston inspired Jenny Nachamson to enlist 15 of the town’s 18 Jewish families in a society. After Louis Brandeis took leadership of the Zionist Organization of America in 1914, chapters formed across the state. In 1925 when Mrs. Phillip Katzin spoke before the Winston-Salem Council of Jewish Women about her life in Palestine, she was besieged by questions. Jewish homes held blue and white pushkas (charity boxes) from the Jewish National Fund as well as Tree Fund certificates.