As a young college graduate in the early 1900s, Ella Davis traveled through Europe and around the Mediterranean with her father, a prominent member of Cincinnati’s Jewish community.
She kept a diary about her journeys, an adventurous cross-continental excursion that broadened her horizons beyond the more limited opportunities open to many women of the time.
In 1924, she and her husband, Nathan Isaacs, who she met at the University of Cincinnati, relocated to Cambridge, where she became active in the Jewish community.
Ella Davis Isaacs was an early life member of Hadassah, a founder of the New England Women’s Association of the Hebrew College, and a supporter of Young Israel of Brookline, Beth Israel Hospital Women’s Auxiliary and other organizations.
But it was her poignant personal travelogue and other writings that caught the eye of Melissa Klapper, an award-winning scholar and author who dug into the archives of the Boston-based Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center, located at the New England Historic Genealogical Society, for her latest research project.
Klapper, who is the Jewish Heritage Center’s 2021 Genevieve Geller Wyner Research Fellow, was exploring the not so well traveled subject of American Jewish women who acquired a sense of independence and identity through their worldly journeys.
On Thursday, Oct. 26, Klapper, who is a history professor and director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, will share her discoveries about Ella Davis Isaacs and others like her in “At Home in the World: American Jewish Women Abroad, 1865-1940,” a virtual talk presented by the Wyner Center.
The program is the inaugural Genevieve Geller Wyner Annual Lecture, funded in memory of Geller Wyner, whose husband Justin Wyner, a longtime board member and past president of the American Jewish Historical Society, was instrumental in retaining the New England Jewish archives here in Boston after the society relocated to New York City.
This year, the center, which boasts more than 2 million records, is marking its decade-long affiliation with the New England Historic Genealogical Society, the country’s oldest and largest genealogical society, housed in a magnificent Newbury Street mansion.
While doing research for earlier books, Klapper noticed a surprising number of American Jewish women who traveled abroad, and she became intrigued with these trailblazing voyagers.
Among Klapper’s books are the National Jewish Book award-winning “Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940,” and last year’s “Ballet Class: An American History.”
Klapper has also been bit by the travel bug. Due to the pandemic, last year was the “first year in two decades that I did not go abroad at least once. I really had an affinity for the topic,” she wrote in an email.
Klapper said she discovered the Jewish women’s travel treasures at the New England Historic Genealogical Society while working with Stephanie Call, the center’s associate director of archives and education.
She relished the week she spent in person at the archive “steeping myself in the diaries, letters, scrapbooks, and photographs of American Jewish women who traveled abroad during the late 1800s and early 1900s,” she said.
In addition to Davis Isaacs’ diary, the genealogical society also possesses love letters she penned to her future husband, an influential legal scholar who became a professor at Harvard University Business School.
It is fascinating to learn that some Jewish women traveled to Palestine in the decades before the creation of the State of Israel, according to Rachel King, executive director of the Wyner Center.
Their travels abroad were “eye-opening and expansive” for women of the time, King said. “There were prescribed roles for women and travel gave them a kind of autonomy and exchange with the wider world that really impacted their lives,” she said in an interview.
Among these travelers was Gussie Edelman Wyner (1870-1949). The daughter of a rabbi, Wyner was born in Minsk (in what is now Belarus) and settled in Boston with her husband George Wyner in 1899. Edelman Wyner, whose letters and other family documents are at the center, is the grandmother of Justin Wyner.
Her extensive travels to Palestine in the 1920s reflected her devotion to a Jewish homeland and Zionism. She went on to become an influential voice who brought innovative thinking to civic and Jewish philanthropy, focused on the role of women. She played a key role in leading fundraising efforts for Hadassah and Boston’s Beth Israel hospital.
King said the establishment of the fellowship and the public lecture reflect Justin Wyner’s commitment to both scholars and the general public.
“He’s making sure our archival collection on regional Jewish history contributes to Jewish historical scholarship. The lecture is a way [for scholars] to share their research and insights with the public,” she said. “It is a gift to the community.”
For more information and to register for the webinar, visit jewishheritagecenter.org.