Tag Archives: Odessa

Jew of the Week: Johann Kremenezky

The Man Who Powered Europe—and Zionism

Yonah Yosipovich Leibensohn Kremenezky (1850-1934) was born in Odessa, Ukraine to a Russian-Jewish family. He studied electrical engineering and worked on designing Russia’s first railways. In 1874, Kremenezky moved to Berlin to further his studies at the city’s Technical University. He then got a job working for Siemens, and was sent across Europe to build the continent’s first street lighting systems, starting in Paris and ending up in Vienna in 1878, where he settled permanently. Two years later, Kremenezky founded his own factory that produced lamps and batteries—the first of its kind in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By 1883, he had become very well-known as a scientist-industrialist (a European Edison), and Crown Prince Rudolf personally asked him to help “electrify” his empire. Kremenezky did just that, laying electrical cables and setting up lighting systems, as well as building the empire’s first power plant. Meanwhile, his lamp factory designed all sorts of new lights, including ornamental bulbs and what we now know as “Christmas lights”. Kremenezky lights were a huge hit, exported around the world, even to the United States. For playing a key role in rebuilding and repowering Vienna after World War I, Kremenezky was awarded with the Ehrenbürgerrecht, the city’s highest decoration for citizens (a street in Vienna was named after him, too). Meanwhile, back in 1896, Kremenezky had met Theodor Herzl and the two became best friends. Kremenezky became a passionate Zionist, gave countless funds in support of the movement, as well as essential electrical know-how to power the future State. In 1898, he set a 500-franc prize for anyone who would write a fitting hymn for the Zionist movement. This eventually led to the adoption of HaTikvah as Israel’s national anthem. Around the same time, Hermann Schapira proposed the establishment of a Jewish National Fund that would legally purchase land in Israel and help settle Jews there. Schapira didn’t live to realize his dream, but Kremenezky was convinced and established the Jewish National Fund a couple of years later, serving as its first chairman. It was he who came up with the JNF “blue box” to collect charity. The JNF went on to play a central role in the establishment of Israel, purchasing over 50% of Israel’s landmass, developing some 250,000 acres of its land, building nearly 200 dams and reservoirs, and establishing over 1000 parks. Perhaps most famously, the JNF has planted over 260 million trees in the Holy Land, partly thanks to its Tu b’Shevat tree-planting drive which still runs to this day. A true friend, Kremenezky was the only one by Herzl’s bedside when he passed away, and financially supported Herzl’s family afterwards. When Kremenezky himself passed away, he was eulogized as a “simple, modest Jew, who did a great for the Zionist movement.” He was awarded the prestigious Wilhelm Exner Medal for excellence in scientific research and innovation, and multiple institutions and streets in Israel are named after him.

Words of the Week

There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.
– Will Durant

Jew of the Week: Hermann Schapira

Founder of the Jewish National Fund

Zvi Hermann Hirsch Schapira (1840-1898) was born to a religious Russian-Jewish family in a small Lithuanian village. He studied to become a rabbi and at age 24 was appointed to his first post. However, he soon decided to pursue his passion for the sciences and ended up studying at a Berlin academy. Three years later, he settled in Odessa and worked for several years as a merchant. In 1878, Schapira moved to Heidelburg and spent another four years studying math and physics, during which time he earned his doctorate. He became a math professor at the University of Heidelburg, and published several important papers. Throughout this time, he continued studying Jewish literature, and contributed to three Hebrew periodicals. By 1884, Shapira was a vocal Zionist, and suggested the establishment of a Jewish National Fund which would buy land in Israel and help settle Jews there. He formally proposed the idea to the First Zionist Congress in 1897, where he also suggested the establishment of a Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Tragically, Schapira died the following year from pneumonia. The Jewish National Fund would finally be launched three years later, and it would take another two decades before the Hebrew University would open its doors. The JNF would go on to become one of the most important organizations in Israel’s history, and instrumental in the nascent state’s success. It purchased over 50% of Israel’s landmass, developed over 250,000 acres of its land, planted some 260 million trees, built nearly 200 dams and reservoirs, and established over 1000 parks. The JNF also played a key role in the founding of Tel Aviv in 1909, and in running Israel’s first postal service. It still owns about 13% of Israel’s land, and in the past decade alone, helped Israel expand its water capacity by 7%. The JNF is perhaps most famous for its Tu b’Shevat tree-planting drive, which over a million Jews participate in every year.

Happy Tu b’Shevat!

Words of the Week

When God created the first man, He showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden, and said to him: “See My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. And everything that I created, I created it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy My world, for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.”
– Midrash (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13)

Jew of the Week: Meir Dizengoff

Founder of Tel-Aviv

Meir Dizengoff

Meir Dizengoff

Meir Yankelevich Dizengoff (1861-1936) was born in Bessarabia, a region overlapping parts of modern-day Moldova and Ukraine. After completing his education, he enlisted in the Russian Army, where he served for two years. Dizengoff then settled in Odessa and soon joined a revolutionary group called Narodnaya Volya (“People’s Will”), which sought to overthrow the Tsar and assist the plight of the many impoverished people across the Russian Empire. At the same time, he met several Zionist leaders and joined Hovevei Zion, an organization formed in response to the tragic pogroms of 1881. In 1885, Dizengoff was arrested for his involvement with Narodnaya Volya’s insurgent activities. Upon his release, he moved back to Bessarabia to found a new branch of Hovevei Zion. A couple of years later, Dizengoff enrolled at the University of Paris to study chemical engineering. It was there that he met Edmond James de Rothschild, a member of the French Rothschilds who was an ardent Zionist. Rothschild sent Dizengoff to Israel to set up a bottle-making factory for his family’s wineries. Unfortunately, the factory didn’t do well, and Dizengoff returned to Europe. It wasn’t long before Dizengoff returned once more to the Holy Land, setting up his home in Jaffa in 1905, and starting a development and import company called Geulah. Several years later, Dizengoff joined together with Ahuzat Bayit to purchase a plot of land outside of Jaffa to create a new Jewish community. In 1909, this plot of land was divided among 66 Jewish families, establishing the town of Tel-Aviv. Two years later, Dizengoff became its head of planning, and was instrumental in its quick expansion and development. During World War I, the Ottomans expelled the town’s population, and it may have ceased to exist entirely were it not for the efforts of Dizengoff. In 1922, Tel-Aviv was recognized as a city, and not surprisingly, Dizengoff was elected its first mayor, a post he held until his death. In 1923, Tel-Aviv became the first city in Israel to have electricity. By 1925, its population had swelled to 34,000. Upon the passing of his beloved wife in 1930, Dizengoff donated their family home to the city, requesting that it be turned into a museum. It was there, on the 14th of May in 1948, that the State of Israel declared its independence. Unfortunately, Dizengoff himself didn’t live to see this day. However, he played a critical role both in the founding of Tel-Aviv, and Israel as a whole, and transformed Tel-Aviv from an empty parcel of land to a beautiful city of 150,000 at the time of his passing. To this day, Tel-Aviv’s most important artery is Dizengoff Street, often described as “Israel’s Champs-Élysées”.

Words of the Week

“Thus said God: ‘Behold, I will save My people from the countries of the East, and from the countries of the West; And I will bring them, and they shall dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God, in truth and in righteousness.'”
– Zechariah 8:7-8