The subject of this American Colony photograph is a seemingly undistinguished public building in West Jerusalem, newly erected in the late 1920s. While the architecture is not that interesting in itself, the life and contributions of the man behind it certainly are. It is the Nathan Straus Health Center, funded by and named for American businessman and philanthropist Nathan Straus (1848–1931). His wife, Lina Straus, is often included in the name of the facility.
The view here is looking east (The American Colony compound lies less than a mile beyond). In 1931 the British Mandatory government named the street running in front of the building (where a person is seen walking) Chancellor Avenue after Sir John Chancellor, who was a British High Commissioner for Palestine. The street was later re-named “Nathan Straus Street”, following the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.
THE STRAUS HEALTH CENTER
The cornerstone was laid by Straus himself, then 80 years old, in 1927 during one of his many visits to Palestine. The Center, he said, was to be for all the inhabitants of the country, irrespective of race, creed, or color. The building was designed by the English Jewish architect Benjamin Chaikin. Built at a cost of $250,000, the Nathan and Lina Straus Health Center was dedicated and opened in 1929 under the auspices of the Hadassah charitable organization.
Since its founding, the facility has always been devoted to the provision of health services to the people of Jerusalem. From 1953 to 1964 the Center housed the first dental school in Israel, founded by Hadassah and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Today it is the location of various clinics operated by the national health funds, plus a sleep medicine laboratory associated with Hadassah.
NATHAN AND LINA STRAUS
Straus was born into a Jewish family in Bavaria in 1848 and as a young child emigrated with his family to the U.S. state of Georgia in 1854. After the Civil War, the family moved to New York City. In 1875, Nathan married Lina Gutherz, with whom he would have six children.
Nathan’s merchandising instincts grew out of a family import business which by 1874 was operating the glassware and china department of the prestigious Macy’s department store. Nathan went on to became a partner in the R. H. Macy enterprise (1888), and ultimately co-owner and managing director, along with his older brother, Isidor (1896). Parallel to this, Nathan and Isador became partners in the Brooklyn dry goods firm Abraham & Straus.
In the late 1880s, having already amassed a considerable fortune, Nathan launched a parallel career of public service and philanthropy in New York City. He served as New York’s Park Commissioner from 1889–1893 and president of the New York City Board of Health in 1898. In 1894 he was selected by Tammany Hall to run for Mayor on the Democratic ticket, however, influenced by some of his friends in New York society, he withdrew from the race.
Straus’ charitable endeavors were wide-ranging but focused primarily on child health issues. He was sensitized to child mortality by the deaths of two of his own three children. Straus’ particular goal, beginning in the 1890s, was providing children with pasteurized milk–not standard practice when he began his work–in order to combat infant mortality and the transmission of tuberculosis. As part of this crusade, Nathan and Lina, from their own funds, established a laboratory and Pasteurization plant, plus a network of milk “stations” or “depots” for distribution. Straus is credited as the leading proponent of the pasteurization movement that eliminated the hundreds of thousands of deaths per year then caused by disease-bearing milk.
Straus retired from business in 1914 to devote his time fully to philanthropy. In 1923 he was named the “most useful citizen in New York” over the span of the previous quarter century.
On a tour around the Mediterranean in 1904, Nathan and Lina stopped over in Palestine, expecting it to be but one stop of many. He wrote, “On reaching Jerusalem, we changed our plans. All that we saw in the Holy Land made such a deep impression on us that we gave up the idea of going to other places. Visiting the holy sights of which one hears and reads since childhood, watching the scenes in life as pictured in the Bible, was most soul-stirring. From that time on we felt a strange and intense desire to return to the land.”
And they did return, many times. Their attention was drawn to the growing Zionist enterprise, of course, but they also found themselves deeply moved by the abject poverty and squalor in which many Palestinians, both Jews and Arabs, then lived. In response, the Strauses over the years poured their resources into numerous projects. During World War I they set up free public soup kitchens for the elderly, blind and disabled. They supported workshops for vocational training and a domestic science school for girls. In the health field, they funded the early nursing missions of Hadassah; they established the Jerusalem health center, a similar center in Tel Aviv, a Pasteur Institute, a health bureau to fight malaria and trachoma, and a network of child health and welfare stations. In 1927, after a great earthquake shook Palestine, Straus wired $25,000 to Jerusalem to help alleviate the suffering of all.
Also named for Nathan Straus was the city of “Netanya”, founded in British Mandate Palestine in 1927 on what had been a barren area of sand dunes and malaria-infested swamps. Situated on the coast between Tel Aviv and Haifa, it is now the fourth largest city in Israel.
Nathan Straus died on January 11, 1931, in New York City. It is said that two-thirds of his fortune, most of it given away during his lifetime, went toward projects to benefit the people of Palestine.
BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: This post nearly got off on an unhistorical footing. My original title was to be: “A Gift to Jerusalem from ‘The Man who Missed the Boat'”– based on a story that cropped up online early in my research. As appealing as it was, it turned out, alas, not to be true: that Nathan and Lina Straus unexpectedly extended their 1912 visit to Palestine, thus forfeiting their planned passage on the ill-fated liner RMS Titanic. Briefly, here are the threads that have been woven together to create the myth: Both Nathan Straus and his brother Isador, along with their wives, were in fact all traveling overseas in the Spring of 1912, but separately. Nathan and Lina did visit Palestine (in the company of fellow American Dr. Judah Magnes, later appointed first chancellor of the Hebrew University). The Strauses then went on to Vienna, where Nathan was representing the United States at an international health conference. They were there on April 15th when news broke of the Titanic disaster–which did in fact claim the lives of Isador and Ida Straus, Nathan’s brother and sister-in-law, returning to America following their European travels. Nathan and Lina never booked passage on the Titanic, however. One final thread: Nathan and his wife did once extend a visit to Palestine, but that was in 1904. Of such are myths woven… None of this is to suggest that the tragic loss of Isador and Ida did not affect Nathan Straus, perhaps profoundly: For one thing, just two years later, in 1914, he retired from business to devote himself full-time to philanthropic and charitable work.
TECHNICAL NOTE: The original American Colony negative is one of the several thousand stereo images residing in the Matson Collection of the U.S. Library of Congress. Such pictures were made with a special camera with dual lenses set a few inches apart, thus recording two slightly different perspectives side by side. Then, when printed as a stereograph card and viewed through a special binocular device, the images merged to produce a striking 3-D effect.
Jerusalem: A Walk Through Time (Vol. 2). Eyal Meiron, ed. (Jerusalem, Yad Ben Zvi Press, 1999), p215
Jewish Virtual Library, “Nathan Straus”
“Nathan Straus: Jerusalem Health Center” (on-line article), Rutgers-Newark School of Public Affairs and Administration.
“Nathan Straus” (on-line article), Philanthropy Roundtable.
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This is one of a series of posts highlighting images produced by the Photo Department of the American Colony of Jerusalem (and later by Eric Matson, working independently), between about 1897 and 1946, as well as other aspects of Colony history. The springboard for some of these posts was work I did in collaboration with Todd Bolen on his digital publication project of American Colony/Matson images. For more background on the Colony, see my on-line article “Jerusalem’s American Colony and it’s Photographic Legacy“.