Established in Lemberg in the summer of 1883 as an organization for students, Mikra Kodesh (Holy Assembly) is sometimes considered the first Zionist association in Galicia, though it was not connected to the emergent Ḥoveve Tsiyon (Lovers of Zion) movement in Russia. The organization was founded by Joseph Kobak, a Haskalah rabbi trained in Germany who was then serving as educator and unofficial rabbi at the Lemberg Temple, and Re’uven Bierer, who had just returned to his native Galicia after completing medical training at the University of Vienna, where he had cofounded Austria’s first Zionist fraternity, Kadimah.
Unlike the Viennese society, Mikra Kodesh was not an openly nationalist association. Its principal sponsor was the self-described “assimilationist” organization Shomer Yisra’el, of which both Kobak and Bierer were members. That group, concerned about growing indifference among Jewish gymnasium students toward their religious heritage, agreed to sponsor Mikra Kodesh in order to counter these trends. The new society offered courses in the Hebrew language and Jewish history, weekly Saturday-afternoon lectures on various Jewish topics, and holiday celebrations, most importantly the annual Maccabi festival, first held in 1883, which soon developed into the central annual event of the nascent Zionist movement.
Like Kadimah, Mikra Kodesh was constituted as an academic association—although at the high-school rather than university level—and it attracted two distinct groups of members. Despite its charter purpose, the group seems to have served initially as a means of easing the transition of religious students into secular studies—for example, by offering them help with German—and many of its earliest members seem to have come from a traditional milieu. Young religious students such as Markus (Mordekhai) Ehrenpreis, Ozjasz Thon, and Markus Braude were attracted to the new fraternity simply to get help preparing for their entrance examinations to the local gymnasium. They were soon joined by students from radically Polonized backgrounds, many of whom served as tutors to students from less secular backgrounds.
According to their own testimony, many of these Polonized students joined the society as a response to an increasing sense of rejection by Polish nationalists, whom they felt had grown intolerably antisemitic. Throughout the 1880s, Mikra Kodesh continued to focus its activities on members of the secular intelligentsia, and thus conducted most of its events in either Polish or German. The group’s principal competition was the Agudas Akhim society, established in 1882 to promote the Polonization of Galician Jewry.
Aside from its cultural programs, Mikra Kodesh also involved itself in important political campaigns, particularly the reelection of Yosef Bloch to Parliament in 1885. In October 1888, student members of the group (including Ehrenpreis, Thon, and Braude, in addition to Polonized students such as Adolf Korkis and Adolf Stand) pressured Kobak to step down, demanded a more open declaration of Jewish nationhood, and asked for increased direct support for Jewish settlement in Palestine. The students renamed the group Zion, and the reframed organization emerged as the flagship Zionist organization in Galicia, whose disparate Zionist groups it organized into a single federation in 1893—the Jewish National Party of Galicia.
Markus (Mordekhai Ze’ev) Braude, “Zikhronotov shel ha-Rav Dr. Mordekhai Ze’ev Broda, 1870–1908,” in Zikhron Mordekhai Ze’ev Broda, ed. Dov Sadan, pp. 15–230 (Jerusalem, 1960); Markus (Mordekhai) Ehrenpreis, Ben Mizraḥ le-ma‘arav (Tel Aviv, 1986); Nathan Michael Gelber, Toldot ha-tenu‘ah ha-tsiyonit be-Galitsyah, 1875–1918 (Jerusalem, 1958); Ezra Mendelsohn, “From Assimilation to Zionism in Lvov: The Case of Alfred Nossig,” Slavonic and East European Review 49 (1971): 521–534; Joshua Shanes, “National Regeneration in the Diaspora: Zionism, Politics and Jewish Identity in Late Habsburg Galicia 1883–1907” (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2002).