How do you feed a new country teeming with starving refugees in a time of war? That was the conundrum that faced Jewish leaders—in the United States and abroad—in 1948.

Washingtonians played an instrumental role in saving the new Jewish state from famine and laying the groundwork for its future strength.

Maurice Atkin, agricultural attaché at the Israeli Embassy, 1948-51. JHSGW Collections, gift of Maurice Atkin

Maurice Atkin, agricultural attaché at the Israeli Embassy, 1948-51. JHSGW Collections, gift of Maurice Atkin

On the day Israel declared independence and was simultaneously attached by surround Arab countries, Washingtonian Maury Atkin (z”l) resigned from his job as a senior economist at the Department of Agriculture to join the new Israeli embassy’s staff as official agricultural attaché and unofficial executive officer. Atkin took a significant pay reduction to have the opportunity to help the new country.

He recalled the situation in an oral history interview: “In the early days, Israel had thousands of penniless immigrants arriving monthly, a shortage of food to meet their needs and even less money to purchase foodstuffs. With the agricultural desk at the embassy as my responsibility, part of the problem became my problem.”

Atkin worked hard to use the Agricultural Act of 1948, which he knew well from working at the Department of Agriculture, to Israel’s advantage. The law allowed US-based relief agencies to procure free surplus food from within the US or from US military installations overseas. They simply had to pay for shipping to the final destination.

Only nonprofit organizations could join the program, and some were skeptical that they had capacity to participate. For example, Hadassah’s expertise was in fundraising, not coordinating the storage and international shipment of food. Nonetheless, Atkin worked with Denise Turover, Hadassah’s Washington representative, to persuade the national board, and Hadassah eventually underwrote shipping of $135 million of food to Israel.

Atkin coordinated efforts among Hadassah and other nonprofit groups like the United Israel Appeal to procure and ship items like butter, cheese, dried skim milk, dried eggs, cottonseed oil, potatoes, flour and soy oil. He made contacts across the country to secure food and ensure that it was kosher. When the US government had excess supplies of beef near the US-Mexico border, Atkin arranged for a kosher butcher to travel there from Chicago and for a Texas rabbi to certify the beef as kosher.

In another instance, Atkin was able to secure 10,000 tons of cheddar cheese. After its arrival in Haifa, Israel’s Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog asked him if the cheese was kosher. Although many kosher food stores in the United States sold it, the cheese was not certified kosher. Nonetheless, after speaking with Atkin, Rabbi Herzog certified the cheese as kosher for children because of its nutritional value.

These collective community efforts worked. Between May 1948 and the end of 1951, Israel successfully absorbed 700,000 new immigrants. The work of Washingtonians helped Israel become a home—with food on the table—for Jews fleeing persecution the world over.

Top photo: Zionist Organization of America members sterilize and repackage canned goods in a Falls Church District Grocery Store for shipment to Israel, 1948. Courtesy of Sally Kravette.