In 1912, Nathan and his brother Isidore were touring Europe. On an impulse, they visited Palestine, at the time a desolate country facing immense challenges. Isidore soon returned to England, where they were due to catch a ship at Southampton to travel back to New York, but Nathan was delayed in leaving Palestine and missed the boat.
Which was fortunate, because the boat was the Titanic.
Straus, grief-stricken over the loss of his brother, felt that his life had been spared via divine providence. He decided as a result to throw his energies into helping Palestine. Straus established a domestic science school for girls, a health bureau to fight malaria and trachoma, a free public kitchen, child-health welfare stations, and various medical centers. All in all, he gave away two-thirds of his fortune to the developing Jewish homeland. At a dinner in his honor, he once said the following:
I often think of the old saying, "The world is my country, to do good is my religion." ...This has often been an inspiration to me. I might say, "Humanity is my kin, to save babies is my religion." It is a religion I hope will have thousands of followers.
Netanya, then a barren area of sand dunes and malaria-infested swamps, is now a bustling and beautiful city. With nearly 200,000 residents and another 150,000 in outlying neighborhoods, it is the fourth-largest city in Israel.
Missing the boat was one of the best things that ever happened to Natan Straus - and to Israel.