Rachel Cohen-Kagan was born in 1888 into the Zionist Lubarsky family of Odessa. Her father Ya’akov was one of the founders of the Hovevei Zion Movement, which meant that – growing up – Rachel hobnobbed with many of Odessa’s leading Zionist figures such as Ehad Ha’Am and Hayim Nahman Bialik.
In November 1919, she boarded The Ruslan, a ship that brought over so many of Israel’s future luminaries that it is sometimes nicknamed the “Israeli Mayflower.” After twenty-one tumultuous days at sea, they docked at the Jaffa port on the third night of Hanukkah.
Once here, Cohen-Kagan became active in Haifa, mainly on matters of social welfare. Following the death of Henrietta Szold, she was appointed to the Va’ad HaLeumi, the Jewish National Council, and put in charge of the social welfare division. Among her most notable accomplishments was the establishment – alongside her famous pediatrician sister-in-law Dr. Helena Kagan – of Tipat Halav, a network of baby wellness clinics across Israel, which managed, within the span of just a few years, to dramatically lower local infant mortality rates.
In 1949 she was elected to the very first Knesset, and promoted the first legislation to secure equal rights for women. But her comprehensive progressive bill was thwarted by the religious factions within the coalition. As a result, she angrily resigned from the Knesset, and was elected chairwoman of WIZO, the Women’s International Zionist Organization.
Cohen-Kagan later on returned to the parliament, and fought openly and fiercely for women’s rights to divorce, for equal service for women in military combat units, and for the strict criminalization of domestic violence, which in the early years of the State only carried a weak mandatory minimum sentence.
She remained active up until her death, in 1982, at the age of 94.
The end song is Toy (lyrics and music – Doron Medalie and Stav Beger), performed by Netta Barzilai. (Licensed by Israel Story through Acum)
About Israel Story: Israel Story is the award-winning podcast that tells extraordinary tales about ordinary Israelis. Often called “the Israeli ‘This American Life,’” we bring you quirky, unpredictable, interesting and moving stories about a place we all think we know a lot about, but really don’t. Produced in partnership with The Times of Israel.
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