Henrietta Szold

This Passover I would like to tell you the story of Henrietta Szold, a woman who dedicated her life to Jewish education, social action, and Zionism.

Henrietta Szold was born in Baltimore during the outbreak of the Civil War, in 1860. She was the oldest child of liberal Rabbi Benjamin Szold and Sophie Schaar Szold, who had immigrated to Baltimore from Central Europe. She was a brilliant student, at the top of her class at Western Female High School. But she learned even more from her father at home, and was fluent in German, Hebrew, and French when she graduated high school.

Women didn't attend college in the 1800's, so Szold began her first career as a teacher right out of high school. She taught French, German, and algebra at Misses Adam's English and French School for Girls and Jewish studies at the school in her father's congregation, Oheb Shalom. In the 1880s, waves of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe came to Baltimore, and she assisted the immigrants in night school, teaching them English and civics. She went back to school herself a few years later, enrolling in the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. As a woman, she was required to sign an understanding that she did not aspire to be a rabbi. She ended up teaching English to many of the Seminary instructors themselves, who were recent immigrant Jewish scholars from Europe!

While a teacher, Henrietta Szold's also had a second career as a writer and editor. She began writing for Jewish journals on a wide variety of issues of concern to the American Jewish community. In 1888, when she was 28 years old, she was invited to be one of nine members, the only female, of the publications committee of the new Jewish Publication Society; four years later, she was the first executive secretary of the JPS, holding this job until she was age 56, in 1916. She translated, edited, and indexed many important Jewish works during this time.

Szold's third and most illustrious career was as an important leader in the Jewish Zionist movement. She was made a member of the Federation of American Zionists executive committee, the only woman member. However, she was frustrated by the idealistic, somewhat romantic Zionistic aspirations of this male-dominated organization. Szold had been a member of a small women's gathering called the Hadassah study circle in New York for many years. On Purim day, 1912, Szold and a group of these women officially founded Hadassah (Hebrew for Esther, the heroine of Purim), and she was elected president. Some thought this new society would be a ladies' auxiliary for the FAZ, but Szold envisioned an independent social service organization. In contrast to the amateurish efforts of the Federation of American Zionists, Szold's Hadassah was practical and business-like, and soon became a major political force in the American and World Zionist movements. Hadassah organized and funded the American Zionist Medical unit, which reformed medical care in Palestine, resulting in the establishment of a nursing school, dental school, medical school, clinics, and hospitals. Israel slowly began to develop a standard of medicine equal to that of wealthy Western nations.

In 1920, at the age of 60, Szold herself moved to Israel to take charge of the Hadassah Medical Organization (HMO). However, she had problems in directing the unit; the Eastern Europeans resented her as an outsider, both as a woman and as an American. In 1925, she relinquished the position, and in subsequent years played a supporting, but still significant role in the affairs of the organization. Szold then turned her attention to the need for social services in Israel. With aid from wealthy American friends, she established modern social service agencies in most major cities in Israel. She opened the country's first school of social work, which later became the School of Social Work of the Hebrew University.

Some of her most notable and important work occurred in the 1930's when she was over 70 years old. Though she never had any children of her own, she became the mother of many children. In 1933 she became director of Youth Aliyah, a worldwide movement to rescue young victims of Nazism and rehabilitate them in Israel. Even when the dangers of World War II made many Americans in Palestine return home, Henrietta Szold refused to leave her community or yishuv. While her initial intent in going to Palestine in 1920 had been to bring Americanism to Palestine, she evolved into an Ambassador for Zionism. She was the interpreter, who taught Americans about what was happening in Palestine and galvanized financial and political support for a new Jewish homeland. She died in Jerusalem, at age 85, in the modern medical center built by Hadassah.

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