Tag Archives: Hebrew

Jew of the Week: Isaac Aboab da Fonseca

America’s First Rabbi

Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, the first rabbi to set foot in America

Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, the first rabbi to set foot in America

Isaac Aboab da Fonseca (1605-1693) was born in Portugal to a family of Conversos, or “Marranos” – Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition. Despite the conversion, their persecution persisted, and Conversos often continued to practice Judaism in secret. In 1581, the Dutch Republic separated from the Spanish Empire, triggering a large migration of Sephardic Jews to the area. By 1603, Dutch law officially made it legal for Judaism to be practiced openly. In 1612, da Fonseca’s family moved to Amsterdam, where they could finally practice Judaism once again. Da Fonseca went to study under the tutelage of the great doctor, poet, mathematician, and rabbi Isaac Uziel, who had opened a new Talmudic academy a few years earlier. Da Fonseca showed his genius early on, and was made a rabbi by the age of eighteen. Some twenty years later, he was invited to serve as the chief rabbi of the Dutch colony of Pernambuco in Brazil. This colony had a population of about 600 Sephardic Jews that fled the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition. Da Fonseca’s arrival in 1642 likely made him the first rabbi to set foot in the Americas. During his thirteen years there, the colony established a proper synagogue, mikveh, and yeshiva – perhaps the very first in the New World – and the Jewish population grew to as many as 5000. During this time, he also wrote what is thought to be the first Hebrew text produced in America. Unfortunately, a Jesuit priest convinced the Portuguese to reconquer the colony and destroy its Jews who “have their open synagogues there, to the scandal of Christianity”. The Jews took up arms alongside the small Dutch army, and resisted the Portuguese forces for nine years. The Portuguese ultimately prevailed, but the Dutch would not surrender until the Portuguese agreed to let the Jews go. The majority sailed back to Amsterdam with da Fonseca. (One of these ships was attacked by pirates, lost its way, and ended up in the nascent colony of New Amsterdam. These first Jews in North America helped establish what would later become New York City.) Back in Amsterdam, da Fonseca soon became the city’s chief rabbi. He was on the panel that excommunicated the famous philosopher Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza. In his old age, Rabbi da Fonseca became known as a great mystic and Kabbalist. He passed away at 88 years of age. In 2007, the Jerusalem Institute published a book of his writings and teachings.

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Words of the Week

If you want to change the world, change yourself.
– Jack Ma

Jew of the Week: Henrietta Szold

Founder of Hadassah, Mother of Israel

Henrietta Szold

Henrietta Szold

Henrietta Szold (1860-1945) was born in Baltimore, the eldest of eight daughters. After finishing high school, she became a teacher, and while working at both an all-girls school and a Jewish school, she was also taking additional studies at Johns Hopkins University. Soon, she opened up her own night school to assist Russian-Jewish immigrants and teach them English. After some 15 years as a teacher, Szold became the first editor of the Jewish Publication Society (famous for its JPS Tanakh, and now the oldest non-profit publisher of Jewish literature in English). Over the next 23 years at this position, she translated multiple Hebrew books into English, edited many others, wrote countless articles, and helped to produce the popular Jewish Encyclopedia, and Marcus Jastrow’s well-known Talmudic Dictionary. Meanwhile, Szold pursued advanced studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary (America’s leading Conservative Jewish academy). At the time, these studies were reserved only for men, but Szold managed to persuade the school president to let her in. In 1898, she was elected to the executive committee of the Federation of American Zionists, the first woman on the board. Her devotion to Zionism became even greater when she took her first trip to Israel in 1909. Three years later, she founded Hadassah, an organization that worked to establish a proper health care system in Israel – for both Jews and Arabs. Under Szold’s leadership, Hadassah helped to create some of Israel’s very first dental clinics, maternity clinics, food banks, medical schools, nursing programs, and at least half a dozen hospitals (Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Centre is still one of the largest hospitals in Israel). Today, Hadassah, or the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, is one of the largest volunteer organizations in the world, with over 330,000 active members serving to support health education, women’s rights, freedom of religion, and the State of Israel. Among her many other accomplishments, Szold co-founded the Ihud political party, and played a key role in Youth Aliyah, an organization that rescued over 30,000 Jewish children from the Nazis. Today, many institutions are named after her (including a public school in Manhattan), and Israelis celebrate Mother’s Day on her yahrzeit, the 30th of Shevat. Szold passed away in the Jerusalem hospital she helped to found, and was buried in the nearby Mount of Olives. She was recently inducted into America’s National Women’s Hall of Fame.

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Words of the Week

… there is no ending that is not a beginning.
– Henrietta Szold