Rebekah Bettelheim Kohut
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Rebekah Bettelheim Kohut
Rebekah B. Kohut, from an 1895 publication.
Rebekah B. Kohut, from a 1922 publication.

Rebekah Bettelheim Kohut (September 9, 1864 - August 11, 1951) was an American educator, writer, and community leader, born in Hungary. She was the first president of the World Congress of Jewish Women, elected at its first convention in 1923. In 1935, Lillian Wald called Rebekah Kohut "American Jewry's First Lady."[1]

Early life

Rebekah Bettelheim was born in Kassa, Hungary (now Ko?ice, in Slovakia), the daughter of rabbi Albert Bettelheim and teacher Henrietta A. Weintraub Bettelheim. The Bettelheim family immigrated to the United States when Rebekah was a small child. They lived in Richmond, Virginia before settling in San Francisco, California, where Rebekah finished high school. She attended but did not graduate from the University of California.[2]


As a rabbi's wife[3] in New York City, she took a public role in community improvement. She founded a women's organization in her husband's congregation at Central Synagogue; the Central Synagogue Sisterhood of Personal Service helped new immigrants in the Lower East Side.[4] She was also involved in the New York Women's Health Protective Association, which sought improved sanitation in the city.[5]

As an educator, she was the only Jewish woman to address the National Congress of Mothers in 1897, on the topic of "Parental Reverence, as Taught in Hebrew Homes."[3] In 1899, she started the Kohut College Preparatory School for Girls, a boarding school, which she ran until 1905 with her stepson George Alexander Kohut. They started and edited a Jewish school newspaper, Helpful Thoughts. She gave lectures on English literature for many years. In 1933 she began a two-year stint as head of the Columbia Grammar School.[2]

In widowhood she was president of the New York section of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW),[6] served as a trustee of the Young Women's Hebrew Association, and was active in New York City politics. During World War I she worked with the city's Women's Committee for National Defense on placing women in war-related work, and she was a fundraiser for war relief. She became chair of the NCJW's Reconstruction Committee, tasked with aiding Jewish communities in war-ravaged Europe.[7] In 1923, she was a founder and the first president of the World Congress of Jewish Women, organized at Vienna. In 1927, she was the first woman to serve as a judge on the Jewish Court of Arbitration in New York City.[8][9]

She wrote two memoirs, My Portion (1925),[10] and More Yesterdays (1950), and a biography of her stepson, His Father's House: The Story of George Alexander Kohut (1938).[11] In the 1930s, she served as an advisor to the New York State Employment Service,[12] and raised funding and awareness for addressing the plight of German Jewish refugees. "The Jewish woman," she proclaimed, "must choose between a disorganized, chaotic, and insecure world and a world in which there is peace, plenty, freedom, and security."[13]

Personal life

Rebekah Bettelheim married rabbi Alexander Kohut in 1887, as his second wife (with rabbi Benjamin Szold performing the ceremony). Alexander Kohut had five sons and three daughters from his first marriage, most of them still young. She was widowed when Rabbi Kohut died in 1894. "I was born in Europe, grew to girlhood in Virginia, was educated in California, and hope to end my days in New York," she wrote in 1895.[14] Her hope was realized; Rebekah Bettelheim Kohut died in 1951, aged 86 years, in New York.[15][16]

In 1952, Kohut's stepdaughter Julia Kahn donated two Assyrian tablets to Yale University in memory of Rebekah Kohut.[17] The Kohut Family Papers, including ledgers from Rebekah Kohut's school for girls, are archived at Yale University.[18]


  1. ^ Lillian D. Wald, "American Jewry's First Lady" Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle (November 15, 1935): 1. via Newspapers.comopen access publication - free to read
  2. ^ a b Karla Goldman, "Rebekah Bettelheim Kohut" Jewish Women's Archive.
  3. ^ a b Shuly Robin Schwartz, The Rabbi's Wife: The Rebbetzin in American Jewish Life (NYU Press 2007): 53-56. ISBN 9780814786901
  4. ^ Howard B. Rock, Deborah Dash Moore, Jeffrey S. Gurock, Annie Polland, Daniel Soyer, Diana L. Linden, eds., City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York (NYU Press 2012): 45-72. ISBN 9780814724880
  5. ^ Barbara Sicherman, Carol Hurd Green, eds., Notable American Women: The Modern Period (Harvard University Press 1980): 403-405. ISBN 9780674627338
  6. ^ Mel Berwin, Making Our Wilderness Bloom: 350 Years of Extraordinary Jewish Women in America (Jewish Women's Archive 2004): 170. ISBN 9780975296721
  7. ^ Elinor Sachs, "The Council Unit: How It Served Europe" The Jewish Woman (January 1922): 3-4.
  8. ^ "Mrs. Kohut a Judge in the Jewish Court" New York Times (March 16, 1927): 9.
  9. ^ Sabine Kaufman, "Woman Judge of Unique Court" Brooklyn Daily Eagle (May 22, 1927): 101. via Newspapers.comopen access publication - free to read
  10. ^ James Luby, "Romantic Career of a Vicarious Mother in Israel: Mrs. Rebekah Kohut's Life Story of Social Service" New York Times (April 26, 1925): BR5.
  11. ^ Rebekah Kohut and Edward Davidson Coleman, His Father's House: The Story of George Alexander Kohut (Yale University Press 1938).
  12. ^ "Marcy Names Mrs. Kohut" New York Times (November 14, 1931): 13.
  13. ^ "Jewish Women Seek 40,000 New Members" New York Times (October 29, 1934): 6.
  14. ^ "Mrs. Rebekah Kohut" The American Jewess 1(2)(May 1895): 82-83.
  15. ^ "Mrs. Kohut Dead; Welfare Leader" New York Times (August 12, 1951): 79.
  16. ^ "Rebekah Kohut, Noted American Jewish Women's Leader, Dies at Age of 86" Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle (August 17, 1951): 1. via Newspapers.comopen access publication - free to read
  17. ^ "Assyrian Tablets Presented to Yale" New York Times (March 2, 1952): 30.
  18. ^ Guide to the Kohut Family Papers MS 956, Yale University Library.

External links

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