As Israel’s 70th birthday approaches, the JT is highlighting six Baltimoreans whose advocacy has greatly impacted hundreds and thousands of Jews throughout the world. In the first of three installments, we profile Mendes Cohen, a banker-turned-adventurer from a renowned family who was the first American Jew to travel to Palestine. We also tell the story of Henrietta Szold, the daughter of Hungarian Immigrants who, after a visit to Palestine, created Hadassah.
Next week, we’ll profile Jacob Blaustein, a Baltimore oil tycoon who helped convince David Ben-Gurion to accept the U.N. plan to partition Palestine into the Gaza Strip, West Bank and Israel; and Jerold “Chuck” Hoffberger, former owner of the Orioles who helped plan the aliyah of 8,000 Ethiopian Jews.
The Cohens are a renowned family in the history of Baltimore Jewry. The eldest son, Jacob, is perhaps the most recognizable name in the bunch, remembered for developing banks, advocating for the passage of the Jew Bill and becoming the first Jewish elected official in Maryland.
Lesser known, but equally historically significant was Jacob’s younger brother Mendes, the first Jewish American to visit Jerusalem.
“Jacob was the central figure for the family, but Mendes was the adventurer, explorer and person who went out of the norms of his times,” said Marvin Pinkert, executive director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland. “I think that’s why Mendes deserves to be remembered. “
Due to the success of the family business, Jacob I. Cohen, Jr. & Brothers Banking House, Mendes Cohen was able to retire from banking at 33 and began traveling the world between 1829 and 1835. During the adventure he visited England, Italy, Russia, Turkey, Egypt and Palestine, collecting art for Samuel Morris, the inventor of the telegraph, along the way.
Upon arriving in Jerusalem, Cohen met with leaders of the Sephardic Jewish community and wrote of his concerns about the poverty of his co-religionists in Palestine.
According to Pinkert, these years abroad, especially the visit to Jerusalem, were the high point of Cohen’s life. During that time, Cohen used a stamp to press wax to send letters that featured a quote from Psalm 122: “Our people will stand within my gates of Jerusalem.”
“That tells me this was an important part of his identity,” said Pinkert.
More than a decade after returning home to the United States, Cohen was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates, where he served in 1847 and 1848. Although mostly a backbencher, during those years Cohen spearheaded legislation to keep people who are in debt out of prison.
Unlike his brother Jacob, who served several terms on the Baltimore City Council, Mendes didn’t find his calling in the Maryland House of Delegates.
“I think he was frustrated by political life,” said Pinkert. “He saw himself as part of a larger stage.”
Cohen’s trip to Jerusalem was long before the creation of the state of Israel, and even though his death in 1879 predated its creation by close to seventy years, Pinkert still believes there is a strong connection between Cohen and the homeland.
“The idea of Israel as a destination had to exist before the idea of Israel as a Zionist state,” said Pinkert. “Although there hasn’t been a specific reference of Cohen calling for the creation of a homeland, that doesn’t mean his journey wasn’t a part of the long pathway of ties between the global Jewish population and the state of Israel.”
Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses have helped millions of people around the world, but few may know what these two robust organizations have in common: they are both the brainchild of Jewish Baltimorean Henrietta Szold.
Szold was born in Baltimore on Dec. 21, 1860, to Hungarian immigrants Benjamin and Sophie Schaar Szold. Szold’s parents immigrated only one year prior to her birth so that Benjanim could become the rabbi of Temple Oheb Shalom.
In her late teens, Szold and her father would routinely go to the docks at Locust Point to welcome the immigrants arriving from Eastern Europe and Russia, and proceeded to provide services for them such as help in finding housing.
Ilene Dackman-Alon is the director of learning and visitor experience at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. Two years ago Dackman-Alon and the museum developed a Living History character of Szold, in which an actress portrays her and gives a performance based on extensive research. Dackman-Alon said among the many pressing matters troubling the immigrants was the need to learn to speak English. “Henrietta started a night school here in Baltimore,” she said. “That school was the model for the ESOL classes we know today.”
Szold and her mother moved to New York after Benjamin died in 1902. Shortly thereafter, the two took a trip out of the country, traveling through Europe, and eventually to Egypt and Palestine.
In Palestine, Szold experienced conflicting feelings. While she was awestruck by the region’s beauty, she was horrified by the destitution its people endured.
“She and her mother were in Jerusalem and saw children with flies all over their faces,” said Dackman-Alon.
Szold realized a simple cream, readily available in the United States, would keep the flies away from children’s faces. This abundance of resources back home, and complete lack thereof in Jerusalem is what pushed Szold to design what would later become Hadassah.
Although Szold wasn’t specifically educated in linguistics nor medical assistance, Dackman-Alon said it was her uncanny ability to build connections that allowed Szold to leave her mark on the world.
“That’s what was wonderful about Henrietta,” she said “she could put together all the resources that you needed.”