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Hadassah and Justice Brandeis

By Susan Woodland

Hadassah’s history with Louis D. Brandeis began with the founding of Hadassah in 1912, 4 years before his contentious confirmation hearings as Justice of the Supreme Court.

Long a celebrated attorney in Boston who championed the underserved, he had become acquainted with the “Zionist idea” in 1910 when he mediated during a cloakmakers’ strike in New York City, which affected 70,000 Jewish workers.  

In 1912, the  year of Hadassah’s founding, Brandeis began his involvement with the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), then called the Federation of American Zionists.  He spoke at early Hadassah meetings, and “observed Hadassah very closely from its inception”.

In 1914, during WWI, Brandeis was elected Chairman of the Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs.  This American Zionist organization assumed responsibility for the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, when the European-led World Zionist Executive disbanded in Berlin in 1915, for the duration of the war.

Brandeis published a pamphlet in 1915, “The Jewish Problem: How to Solve it”.  In it he says, “How can we secure for Jews, wherever they may live, the same rights and opportunities enjoyed by non-Jews?”  Brandeis explored in 16 pages the issues of “liberalism and anti-Semitism”, “democracy and nationality”, “nations and nationalities”, “Jewish nationality”, “Zionism” and “Zionism and patriotism”.  He stated, “Let us all recognize that we Jews are a distinct nationality of which every Jew … is necessarily a member … let us insist … that … we, like members of other nationalities, shall have the option of living elsewhere or of returning to the land of our forefathers.”  He also said that it was the duty of the Jews of America to lead in the struggle for liberation: “The whole world longs for the solution of the Jewish problem.”

Prior to his appointment in 1916, Brandeis had argued a number of cases before the Supreme Court.  According to attorney Robert Szold after Brandeis’ death: “Invariably the battles he fought for the public good were based upon painstaking investigation and knowledge of the facts, from which emerged constructive plans.”  In 1916 Woodrow Wilson nominated Brandeis as a Justice of the Supreme Court, saying: “I have received from him counsel singularly enlightened, singularly clear sighted and judicial, and above all full of moral stimulation.”  Contentious in the extreme, Brandeis’ confirmation hearing was mentioned in a 1937 article in the New York Times, “21 years have elapsed since the furious debate over whether Louis D. Brandeis, a Boston lawyer, was too dangerously radical to be a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.  That debate was bitter while it lasted, and caused more fuss than the recent arguments over the qualifications of a former Klansman from Alabama.  The critics of Brandeis have long since been silenced … this country has come to have a peculiar pride in the striking figure of Brandeis, and respect for the genuinely great qualities of his mind.”

Between 1916 and 1918, Hadassah was involved in fundraising for, and the staffing and equipping of the American Zionist Medical Unit prior to its departure for Palestine. It was this Unit of 44 medical professionals that evolved into today’s Hadassah Medical Organization. Brandeis intervened as necessary in soliciting whatever approvals were required from the US War Department, the Passport Division, the US Treasury and Military and Naval authorities, in order for the Unit to be allowed to sail through the Mediterranean a few months before the end of WWI.

Between 1919 and 1921, Brandeis was responsible in part for the continued “existence of Hadassah as an autonomous organization”.  Before this, Hadassah had been a women’s affiliate of the ZOA, the Zionist Organization of America, which underwent a split in 1921; Brandeis encouraged Hadassah’s leadership to stand up to the ZOA.  This led to the rebirth of an independent Hadassah with full control of the funds they raised and, eventually, an independent vote at the World Zionist Congress.

Hadassah continued a close relationship with Louis Brandeis throughout the rest of his life – both during the completion of his tenure on the court and after he retired from active service.  There is correspondence in the files with Brandeis, Hadassah still seeking his counsel and advice, up until the month of his death in 1941. 

In 1942 Hadassah began its first vocational education project in Jerusalem, the Alice L. Seligsberg Trade School for Girls.  It opened on the grounds of the recently vacated Rothschild Hospital, alongside the already established Judge Julian W. Mack Workshops and School.  This compound became known as the “Louis D. Brandeis Vocational Center” in recognition of a substantial gift from the Brandeis family; Justice Brandeis’ widow, Alice, thought that would be an appropriate memorial in recognition of his “interest in the practical aspects of the upbuilding program in Palestine”. Justice Brandeis’ daughter, Susan Brandeis, played an integral role in the establishment of Hadassah’s education program. As a member of the New York Board of Regents, she assisted in setting up an American advisory committee for Hadassah’s education projects in Palestine, while soliciting advice and materials on Hadassah’s behalf.

In 1944, the first of the Louis D. Brandeis Vocational Workshops opened in the Brandeis Vocational Center.  Departments eventually included a Fine Mechanics and Precision Instruments Workshop and the Apprenticeship School of Printing under the supervision of Henri Friedlaender, who is known for designing the first modern Hebrew font. In addition to producing items such as microscopes and publications, students also received instruction in traditional academic disciplines. The Brandeis Apprenticeship Department merged with the Alice Seligsberg High School in 1970, and in 1988 the Seligsberg-Brandeis Comprehensive High School was turned over to the Jerusalem Municipality.  

In 1946 there is correspondence between Denise Tourover, Hadassah’s Washington Representative to the National Board and National Board member for over 40 years, with Judith Epstein, then Hadassah’s National President, regarding the purchase of the Brandeis portrait for the Supreme Court.  Acting as mediary with the artist, Eben F. Comins, was Louis Brandeis’ son-in-law, Susan’s husband, Jack Gilbert.  It is clear from the correspondence that Denise shepherded the project along; without her advice, prodding and interest in the portrait, Hadassah might have missed the opportunity.  Several artists and existing portraits were considered.  The portrait that was chosen had been started while Brandeis was still alive.

A memo from Denise on January 5 says, “I have seen the portrait now for the second time … it is a splendid likeness, and has a high spiritual quality … I have spent some time with Mr. Gilbert who approves the picture, and is anxious for us to acquire it for presentation to the Supreme Court.  He has shown me the spot in the Court where it may be hung, being in the most conspicuous spot in the Lawyers’ room, opposite Mr. Justice Holmes.”  

Denise goes on to say, “While heretofore no organization as such has presented a portrait to the Supreme Court, the presentation of portraits to the Government for hanging in public buildings is an accepted procedure … I am informed that there is nothing inconsistent with Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America making presentations.  Indeed, it is pointed out that because of the Justice’s interest in Hadassah, and the fact that we are the sole Jewish beneficiary under his will, there is much and cogent reason for our so doing.  I believe it is entirely in good taste and carries great dignity.”  She also mentions that the same artist painted the portrait of Justice Cardozo.

Hadassah’s National Board approved the purchase on February 7th, and the Court approved the portrait on March 6th.  The presentation ceremony took place on June 13th.  Rabbi Stephen S. Wise quoted in his remarks a speech Brandeis had made in 1915 when he was president of the ZOA, “America’s fundamental law seeks to make real the brotherhood of man.  That brotherhood became … Jewish … law … more than 2500 years ago.  America’s insistent demand in the 20th century is for social justice.  That also has been the Jews’ striving for ages … ”

Shortly after Brandeis’ death in 1941, former Hadassah national president Rose Jacobs wrote in The New Palestine, “Those of us who saw him at close range in his very last months were unforgettably impressed by his remarkable youthfulness and unimpaired keenness of mind.  There was none of the usual pessimism of old age in him, and despite all the difficulties and problems of these times, his Zionist faith continued unabated.  Those were great and simple words he uttered in a conversation some months ago – words each one of us should treasure as motto and guide: ‘The thing to do is to go on.  Do not let your doubts stop you.’ “ [from the article, “Justice Brandeis and Hadassah”, November 14, 1941 issue.]

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