The Jewish people, exiled from their homeland, were scattered throughout the world for 2,000 years. Suffering from discrimination and anti-Semitic persecution, they dreamed of someday returning to Eretz Israel, the “Promised Land.” Rishon LeZion, which means "First to Zion,” was the very first modern Jewish colony established in the ancient Land of Israel.
In 1881, anti-Semitic riots (known as “pogroms”) broke out in southern Russia and the Ukraine, resulting in two streams of Jewish immigration:
A mass immigration of Jews to America (the “Golden Land”).
A very small immigration to Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel), the result of the nascent “Lovers of Zion” movement in Eastern Europe.
In the wake of the 1881 pogroms in Eastern Europe, the first wave of immigrants to Palestine (the "First Aliyah") landed on the shores of Jaffa. On March 19, 1882, Zalman David Levontin and Joseph Feinberg founded in Jaffa the “Committee of Yesod Ha’maala Pioneers,” the first organization with the aim of purchasing land in order to establish Jewish agricultural settlements.
These pioneers hoped to serve as an example for others to follow and settle in the Holy Land. After buying the 850 acres (3,340 dunams) of land known as “Ayun Kara,” on July 31,1882, seventeen courageous Jewish families from Eastern Europe founded their agricultural settlement, Rishon LeZion – basing the name on the Biblical passage “We are the first to Zion and will bring good tidings to Jerusalem” (Isaiah 41:27).
The new immigrants established agricultural settlements with the goal of becoming independent farmers. Focusing on the practical aspects of rebuilding the homeland through land acquisition, these idealists had a common interest – to found a new society in Eretz Israel for the Jews.
The Rishon LeZion pioneers faced arduous conditions; they settled on a hilltop on which "there is no house, nor hut, farmers' shelter, neither trees nor people - only thorns and brush." From the very start, they suffered many ordeals and hardships, their first crucial problem being a shortage of water. With no prior experience in farming, they attempted to grow wheat and barley, the most common crops in those days. However, their crops failed and their situation worsened.
As the settlers clearly did not have the resources to hold out under such difficult circumstances, they formed a committee from among the group to manage their affairs. Only two weeks after settling in Rishon LeZion, Joseph Feinberg, one of the founders, was dispatched by the committee to Europe to solicit donations. Feinberg managed to persuade Baron Edmond de Rothschild to support the new community and the Jewish resettlement efforts in Israel.
The Baron Rothschild’s first contribution to the young settlement was 25,000 francs to help support the poorer families and complete digging the well. Help in digging was received by a group of young “BILU” pioneers sent, at the Baron’s request, from Mikveh Israel, a nearby agricultural school. Arriving in Rishon LeZion at the end of December 1882, the young BILU members joined the founders and worked for them, becoming the first Jewish laborers in Eretz Israel. On February 23, 1883, at the depth of 48 meters, water was found in the well.
The farmers of Rishon LeZion received agricultural training from the Baron’s experts who, upon studying the soil, proclaimed it suitable for growing wine grapes. Following a visit by Baron Rothschild in 1887, construction of the Carmel wine cellars began. Despite severe marketing problems and thanks to the Baron’s persistent support, the winery continued to produce wines and brandy, which were praised for their high quality. Quickly becoming famous, the wine was sold primarily among Jewish communities throughout the world.
Since those early, challenging days and with every step, Rishon LeZion has spearheaded Zionist settlement and overcome every adversity to become one of the most developed cities in Israel.
Today a fast-growing modern metropolis, Rishon LeZion has succeeded in restoring some of the nostalgic scenery of its past, preserving its many unique historical and cultural contributions. To commemorate the deeds of the brave pioneers who served as a model for those who followed and whose success laid the foundations for the establishment of an independent state, the Rishon LeZion Municipality founded the Open-Air Museum of Rishon LeZion in 1982, one hundred years after the village’s inception.
“Rishonim” (Firsts) of Rishon
Rishon LeZion made important national contributions in many realms. Zionist symbols and institutions created here laid the foundations for Jewish nationality in the land, leading to the establishment of the State of Israel.
1. Revival of the Hebrew language
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s ideas for reviving Hebrew as a modern spoken language was enthusiastically accepted in Rishon LeZion. Teachers David Yudelovitch, Israel Belkind, and Mordechai Lubman were the first to teach “Hebrew in Hebrew” for all subjects, including science, mathematics and even gymnastics. No longer used solely for religious purposes, Hebrew was officially taught and spoken as the everyday language. The first Hebrew school in the world was founded in Rishon LeZion in 1888. Hebrew textbooks were written and translated. The first Hebrew children’s newspaper, “Youngster’s World” (published in Jerusalem by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and David Yudelovitch), was read here. The first Hebrew kindergarten, located at first in the synagogue basement, was established in Rishon LeZion in 1898. Here newly revived Hebrew children’s songs were composed and sung. Esther Shapira, trained in Jerusalem, was the first kindergarten teacher.
2. The Israeli flag
The blue and white flag flown for the first time at Rishon LeZion’s 3rd anniversary parade would later become Israel’s national flag. Designed in 1885 by Fanny Meirovitch and the young BILU pioneer Israel Belkind, the parade flag consisted of a “tallit” (prayer shawl) with two light blue stripes of cloth sewed on, and a blue Star of David in its center. Baron Rothschild’s representative had the honor of carrying the flag as he rode his donkey at the head of the parade.
3. The Israeli anthem
The words of HaTikva (“The Hope”), Israel´s national anthem, were written by Naphtali Herz Imber in 1883, while he was visiting Rishon LeZion. A local farmer, Shmuel Cohen, adapted the words of Imber’s poem to a Romanian folk tune. The anthem was sung for the first time in 1887 by schoolchildren in Rishon LeZion, and the song quickly became popular throughout the country.
4. The plough
The first Hebrew plough was made in 1891 in Rishon LeZion by a young blacksmith, Yitzhak Leib Toporovsky. Improving on the traditional wooden Arab plough, he invented and cast a sturdy narrow-bladed iron plough suited to the local soil and crops.
5. Cultural institutions
The first Hebrew Community Hall was constructed in Rishon LeZion in 1898. Dedicated in appreciation of Baron and Baroness Rothschild, it was the first public building built with funds collected by the farmers rather than with the Baron’s aid. The hall was used as a social and cultural center accommodating local committee meetings, theater productions, lectures and reading evenings in Hebrew. It also housed a library and the first Hebrew orchestra, founded in 1895.
In 1889 Keren Kayemet, then called “The Association for the National Fund for Eretz Israel,” was conceived of in Rishon LeZion for the purpose of collecting donations to purchase and rehabilitate land. The founders were young Rishon farmers who met secretly, twelve years before the Jewish National Fund was officially established at the 5th Zionist Congress in Basel in 1901.
7. Women’s rights
The struggle for equal rights for women, under the leadership of farmer and author Nehama Pohatchevsky, began in 1917 in Rishon LeZion. Here, women obtained equal voting rights for the first time; and in 1919 Nehama was voted the first woman to head the village committee.