Ties Bind Jewish Charities to Titanic

HIAS, Hadassah and Women's Council Got Foothold After Sinking

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published April 12, 2012, issue of April 13, 2012.
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As the story goes, a male passenger, frustrated that women and children were being lowered in lifeboats while men were being left to go down with the ship, grabbed Leah Aks’s infant from her arms and tossed him overboard. Unbeknownst to Leah Aks, her son had fallen into the lap of a woman on a lifeboat. When a despondent Leah Aks boarded the Carpathia, the ship that rescued the Titanic’s survivors, she heard the baby crying. But the woman who had caught the baby, considering him a gift from God, refused to give him up. The Carpathia’s captain soon found himself in the role of King Solomon, judging Leah Aks to be the true mother when she correctly described the location of her baby’s birthmark.

When the Carpathia docked in New York, Leah and Frank Aks stayed in HIAS accommodations until Sam Aks arrived from Virginia to take them home.

In the anniversary book, HIAS also recounts helping several other Titanic survivors.

Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization Of America

It’s no coincidence that Hadassah, the American women’s Zionist organization, was created the same year as the Titanic disaster. The group’s founder, a Baltimore teacher named Henrietta Szold, was an acquaintance of Nathan Straus, whose brother, Isidor Straus, died when the ship sank.

Nathan and his wife, Lina, had traveled to Europe with Isidor and his wife, Ida. Rather than return to America on the Titanic, Nathan and Lina went on to pre-state Palestine, where he heard the news of his brother’s death. In his grief, Nathan Straus, who co-owned the R.H. Macy & Co. department store in New York with Isidor, devoted his life to philanthropy.

One of Nathan Straus’s first major donations was to the fledgling Hadassah organization. At that time, according to the Hadassah history book, “It Takes a Dream,” the group had just $283 in its treasury. Straus told Szold he would fund a medical mission in Jerusalem if Hadassah would take over paying the nurse’s salary after four months, — a total of $2,500 for two years’ pay.

Hadassah raised enough money to send not one, but two nurses to Palestine, thus initiating its medical mission. Straus continued giving to Hadassah over the next 20 years until his death in 1931. Hadassah went on to become a major force in Israeli medicine, founding two university hospitals in Jerusalem as well as several other medical programs.

“Would Hadassah have gotten where it is today,” asked current Hadassah national president Marcie Natan, “had there not been Nathan Straus at that pivotal moment in time? It’s hard to say.”

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at zeveloff@forward.com, or on Twitter @NaomiZeveloff


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