Henrietta Szold: Biographical Study

In Israel, there are cities where streets are called by the names of women – heroines of the Tanakh, for example, Ruth, Rachel, or Esther. However, only several streets are called by the names of modern women. Henrietta Szold is among such exceptions because her role in the development of Israel in two small, but important for the future of the country areas – health care and social protection – can be compared to the role of several men. Being an American by origin, Henrietta Szold made a lot for the development of the Zionist movement and promoted development of the
Jewish culture with all possible means.

Part 1. Family, Education, and Background of Henrietta Szold

Henrietta Szold was an outstanding figure of the Zionist movement, a founder of the “Hadassah” organization, and the first head of the “Youth Aliya”. Henrietta Szold was born on the 21st of December, 1860, in Baltimore, the State of Maryland. Her father was the rabbi Benjamin Szold who emigrated from Hungary in 1858. He was the spiritual leader of a Baltimore reformist synagogue of the Oheb Shalom Temple. Henrietta was the oldest of eight daughters in the family. In 1877, she graduated from the Western Female High School. She was teaching in Miss Adam’s School and Oheb Shalom Religious School for 15 years and held Bible and Historical courses for adults. She also attended public lectures at Johns Hopkins University and Peabody Institute for further self-education. Henrietta created the first American Evening School, which trained its students in English and gave professional skills to Russian-Jewish immigrants in Baltimore.
Starting from 1893, she worked in the Jewish Publishing Society (JPS) for more than twenty years. In 1916, she was the secretary of the American Jewish Publishing Society and organized translation of the Akhad-ha-Ama articles from German into English and Jewish, edited the American Jewish almanac, and prepared the Jewish Encyclopedia in English. A difficult situation of numerous Jewish emigrants from Russia who started arriving at Baltimore since 1881 made a deep impression on Szold. From 1888 to 1893, she initiated and headed the pilot project aimed at practical training of emigrants from Russia at evening schools. Szold saw the means of recovery from all ills of life, which the history brought down on the Jewish people, in Zionism (Hartogensis 225).

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After the death of her father, Szold with her mother moved to New York where she continued working for the Jewish Publishing Society and studied Hebrew and the Talmud in the Jewish theological seminary. In 1909, together with her mother she went on a semi-annual travel across Europe and Eretz-Israel. The Holy Land struck Szold with the contrast between the beauty of the nature and poverty of the population. Her commitment to Zionism became even more pronounced after the trip to Palestine in 1909. She saw the real country life, poor population, hungry children, widespread trachoma, and malaria. She was bearing the thought of how to take necessary measures for the improvement of life and human health in Palestine (Sarna 18).

In 1909 when the Baltimore-born Henrietta Szold visited the country there was not the slightest semblance of a modern sanitary system…Unemployment, poverty, squalor, malnutrition, and unsanitary homes were omnipresent. The four hospitals in Jerusalem that were under Jewish auspices lacked the most basic medical equipment and none of them possessed a maternity ward. For the Jewish poor it was often a matter of bearing children on heaps of rags in a basement, or in a missionary hospital where the price of the service might be conversion. (Wasserman 259)
Szold came back to New York with many plans in her head. However, they were implemented only in several years. Upon the return in 1910, Szold became the secretary of the American Zionists Federation. In February of 1912, she created Hadassah Organization on the basis of clubs of the “Zion Daughters” and was elected the first president and retained this position up to 1926. She was also a constant correspondent of the New York Jewish newspaper “Jewish Messenger” and signed her articles with a pseudonym “Shulamith”.

In 1918, the American Zionist groups united in the American Zionist Organization; Szold headed its educational and propaganda activity. In 1920, Henrietta was directed to Eretz -Israel as the representative of the American Zionist Organization. Soon, she became the head of a medical mission of Hadassah in Palestine and headed courses on training of nurses. At the end of 1922, medical mission was transformed into the medical organization “Hadassah”. In 1923, Szold returned to the USA.

There is no question that the poverty, hygiene and dire medical needs of the Jewish population living in Eretz Yisrael were of primary concern to women like Henrietta Szold who served as Hadassah’s first president. Szold and other founding Hadassah members made trips to Pre-state Israel in 1909 and came back with reports which would inspire concrete proposals leading to the founding of the organization in 1912 and eventually a series of cutting edge medical institutions. (Jewish Israel)

In 1926, Henrietta retired, but remained the honorable president of the society. The following year, Scold returned to Eretz – Israel. In 1927, she went to Palestine for the second time. This time, Henrietta Szold was one of three members of the board of directors of the International Zionist Organization, which presented the Zionist movement, whose aim was to create the Jewish motherland in Canaan initially included into the Ottoman Empire and later being under the British mandate after the World War I.
In 1930, Scold was a part of Va’ad Leummi – the National Council of the Jewish Ishuva in Palestine where she headed the department of social help. Among her achievements on this post there was a program of public hygiene, the aid program to juvenile offenders, and creation of vocational schools. She immigrated to Palestine in 1933 and helped to manage the Zionist organization “Youth Aliyah” aimed at ensuring immigration of the Jewish youth from Germany to Palestine where Nazis came to power. Owing to her activity, thousands of lives of the German Jews were rescued: about 30 thousand Jewish children were rescued from Nazis.

In 1934, Henrietta Szold was provided with an honor of putting the first stone of the university hospital “Hadassah” on the Scopus Mountain. Opening of the training program of coming nurses in Jerusalem became the first project of the organization. Hadassah financed hospitals, medical schools, dental clinics, free dining rooms, etc. for Jewish and Arabic citizens of Palestine. Szold convinced her colleagues that existing programs were essential for survival of the Jewish people in the Holy Land (Jewish Women’s Archive).

On the day of her 80th birthday in 1940, Szold read her will, according to which she put all her money to creation of a research center and coordination of the youth activity in the country. After her death, the center called after her Mosad Scold was opened. In 1944, the Boston University awarded Szold with a doctor’s degree.

The personal tragedy of life of Henrietta Scold was the fact that she was never married; a woman whose life was devoted to rescue of children never had children herself. When she was around forty, she passionately fell in love with a scientist-Talmudist Lewis Ginsberg. He was fifteen years younger than her and reciprocated her feelings exclusively platonically. Henrietta Szold died in December 1945 surrounded by nurses who freed the room at school for her. She was buried on the Olive Mountain. Her name is connected with the Hadassah Hospital, “Youth Aliyah”, and Zionist movement.

Part II. Conversion to Zionism

In order to understand conversion of Henrietta Szold to Zionism, it is necessary to understand what Zionism is. Zionism is the nostalgic movement, which arose at the end of the 19th century and was preaching association of the Jews from different countries on the basis of the historical homeland Palestine. The emergence of Zionism was preceded by important events: after the Napoleonic wars in Europe ghettos (closed Jewish communities where rabbis possessed the absolute power) began to break up quickly; the Jews left voluntary self-isolation, actively joined the European cultural and public life, and had mixed marriages. The process of assimilation and emancipation of the Jews gained a steam: withdrawal from Judaism began. A Judaic top, losing the power, started to search for a new ideology able to gather people. Preserving all main concepts of Judaism, Zionism addressed not religious, but breeding feeling of the Jews and, therefore, was equally acceptable for the Orthodox Jew, for the baptized Jew, and for the Jewish atheista. Zionism, as well as its predecessor Judaism is the ideology of the racial superiority of Jews; it is the aspiration of the Jews to gain the world supremacy (Shargel 145).

An unprecedented in history devotion of the Israeli people to the native land and understanding of the unity became prerequisites for origin in the Jewish environment of the mass movement of national liberation in essence for return to Eretz-Israel and creation of an independent state on its territory. Being one of the aspects of the general reorganization of the universe, emancipation cannot happen at the initiative of a certain person or a group of people. Eschatological interpretation of emancipation prevailed prior to the beginning of the Haskala’s era and national expectations of the Jewish people could be expressed during this period only in the form of messianic movements, many of which were followed by the appeals to mass resettlement in Eretz-Israel and sometimes by practical actions. Some ideological, emotional, and psychological elements of messianism like an aspiration to social justice and belief in a final victory of the good over the evil were inherited by Zionism, which in a certain measure promoted growth of its popularity. However, an idea fundamental for Zionism that the Jewish people have to take business of own association and revival into own hand could arise and gain distribution only as a result of overcoming or reconsideration of eschatological representations (Szold 5).

Emancipation cannot change position of the Jews, especially at the lowest levels of the social hierarchy. Assimilation leads only to the loss of national originality without providing full integration in the society, which is consistently tearing “foreigners” away. Therefore, within existing states the Jewish people can either disappear as an ethnic and spiritual community or eternally remain a special, most likely unequal and oppressed minority with a distorted social structure representing some kind of “the turned pyramid” with businessmen, financiers, and representatives of liberal professions at the top, while farmers and workers are almost not presented. True emancipation of the Jews is possible only on the territory specially allocated for this purpose where they, having become the majority of the population, could create an independent or autonomous state, establish a social structure on the example of European nations, and achieve moral and cultural development. Traditional representations about Eretz-Israel as a historical homeland of the people of Israel and a place of its future revival organically joined this concept. Thereby, foundation of the new ideology – the ideology of Zionism – was laid down. Thus, from the moment of its emergence, Zionism accumulated main ideological concepts of the Jewish national movement of the time, owing to which it achieved the leading position in it (Sarna 52).

Henrietta Szold was one of the key figures in the Zionist movement. When in 1880 the flow of Jewish immigrants from the countries of Eastern Europe started arriving in the USA, Henrietta organized an evening school of English for them, in which she discussed the bases of public life in the USA. These lessons led her to the ideas of Zionism and in 1895 she made the speech of the Zionist content for the first time to the US Jewish Women National Council during the meeting that took place in Baltimore. Thus, a vigorous Zionist activity of Henrietta Szold started in 1897 when she entered a just-created Baltimore Zionist Organization.

The organization was based on the following postulates:

  • Association of Jewish farmers, handicraftsmen, and dealers in Palestine;
  • Creation of a uniform federation of all Jews into local or general groups, according to the laws of various countries;
  • Strengthening of the Jewish national self-reliance and national consciousness;
  • Definition of preliminary steps for achievement of those government grants which are necessary for the achievement of Zionist purposes.

Resistance of religious circles induced liberal and centrist women’s organizations, including Hadassah and Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO), to combine the efforts. In 1919, the Association of the Jewish Women for equal rights was created in Eretz-Israel. In the elections of 1920, the Association received seven places; in 1925 already 13 places or 15%. For 15 years spent by Henrietta Szold in Eretz-Israel, she managed to establish relations between local women’s organizations and feminist movement of various countries of the world. She also took an active part in the struggle for female equality in Ishuva. As well as other participants of the feminist movement adhering to liberal views, she believed that the society founded on the principles of equality and justice can provide full equality to women (Sarna 19).

Part III. Contributions of Henrietta Szold

Henrietta Szold devoted all her life to charitable organizations. She founded the Women’s Zionist organization “Hadassah Women’s Organization”. Hadassah is a women’s Zionist organization of the USA. Szold was elected as the first president of Hadassah. The name of the organization was taken from the Jewish name of a legendary queen Esfir. Later, Hadassah was included into the American Zionist Organization.

The Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem was the best hospital in Israel and in the Middle East. Szold insisted on provision of the Arabs with the most modern medical care on an equal basis with the Jews. Hadassah played a leading role in the decrease of child mortality among the Arab population. However, the spirit of Hadassah is the spirit of a voluntary relief aid and refusal from discrimination was rejected by the Arab management, which was afraid that it could weaken the Arabs’ hatred of the Jews. At the beginning of 1948, shortly before the declaration of the State of Israel, Arab soldiers suddenly attacked 77 Jewish doctors and nurses from Hadassah Hospital and killed them (Jewish Women’s Archive).

The purpose of the Hadassah Organization is assistance relating to health care and education in Eretz-Israel for the benefit of all people without racial and religious distinctions. The center of Hadassa is located in New York and its branches are in many cities of the USA. A direct connection between the New York Center and Israel is carried out by Hadassa’s Council in Israel. The organization works in many cities of the State of Israel and the principle of voluntary work is the basis for its activity. Fields of the organization’s activity include programs of public hygiene, assistance of absorption of new repatriates, care for the improvement of the position of a woman in the society, and help to medical and educational institutions of Hadassa in Israel (Levin and Kusthanowitz 28).

Led by Henrietta Szold, in the spring of 1913 Hadassah directed two midwifes for the aid from the USA to Jerusalem hospitals. In 1918, in Eretz-Israel the group of 44 people, including doctors, civil engineers, nurses, and administrative workers, arrived for the organization of a health system. In 1918, Hadassah opened the Palestine’s first nursing school in Jerusalem. The hospital in Tel Aviv (1919) was the first medical institution constructed by Hadassah in Eretz-Israel. It was followed by medical centers in Jerusalem, Haifa, Tsfat, and Tiberias. In 1940, Hadassah together with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem started preparation of the creation of the highest medical educational institution, which started functioning as a medical faculty of the university after the war for independence (Sarna 78).

In 1942, Henrietta acted as a cofounder of the Zionist political party “Ikhud”, which means “unity”, created for the purpose of initiation of the process of the Arab-Jewish reconciliation and creation of the Arab-Jewish state. In Hitler Germany, the youth did not have any future; parents could not visit them. Moreover, the British limited entry of adults into Palestine. “Youth Aliyah” took care of teenagers aged from 13 to 17 and arranged settlements for the youth. There, they received general and professional education in a home atmosphere though there were no parents with them. It was absolutely a new prospect. For many years, Henrietta Szold went to Haifa to visit each teenager. Moreover, she visited them in those places where they lodged, listened to their complaints, tried to help, and shared their pleasures. She did it until the number of teenagers rescued in such a way from Germany reached one thousand. Many eminent people in Israel came out of the “Youth Aliyah” centers, which continued their activities after 1945 in other forms with the youth coming without parents for other reasons, but without attentive supervision of Henrietta Szold (Sarna 82).

When on February 18, 1943, 369 adults and 861 children, including 719 orphans and 142 children with one or both parents, arrived at Palestine, the Jewish Ishuv met them with a huge enthusiasm and was glad about their arrival. Henrietta Szold, struggling for the rights of the Jews and leading the “Youth Aliah”, carried out the main task: she helped children to arrive in Eretz-Israel and to become the Jews (Sarna 85).

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The question of education of the arrived children caused hot discussions in Ishuva. Religious circles, namely “Agudat Israel”, a religious party of ultra – orthodox anti-Zionists having influence in Ishuva and creating the agency on the absorption of repatriates from Poland and Germany, insisted on the reception of exclusively orthodox religious education by children. However, supported by Henrietta Szold, the Jewish agency decided to give the right of a choice to children older than 14. Children younger than this age had to receive education corresponding to the way of life in the parental house.

Under the leadership of Henrietta Szold and Dr. Hans Bate, activists of “Youth Aliyah” made everything for their absorption firstly in Atlita and then in 11 transit camps where children restored their forces and got stronger after three years of sufferings. They were not able to study yet; therefore, there were no special classes except the Hebrew lessons in transit camps. Only fifty Teheran children knew Hebrew. Polish and Yiddish were main spoken languages for the majority of children.

Henrietta Szold reported that it was required to take a set of factors into account for the distribution of children. Religious, human, as well as maternal feelings and educational aspects were mixed and it was very difficult to make correct decisions. It was not always possible to completely establish rules and principles. Although the list of children was received even before their arrival, it was not known of the existence of family groups. Many children had identical surnames, but they were considered as namesakes.
Being engaged in the absorption of children, Henrietta Szold was in contact both with religious and non-religious instructors accompanying children, as well as with children. She talked personally to each out of 400 children. She could learn a lot from personal meetings with children. Children aged from 5 till 9 claimed that they did not remember whether their house was religious or not, but when asked about Shabbat, remembered how candles were lit and even described the ceremony of “avdal”. Henrietta Szold admitted that children experienced great changes to the better.

Former Polish refugees also had problems connected with pro-communistic tendencies in Ishuva. The experience of the Teheran children in Germany was tragic, but short-term. They appeared on the territory of the Soviet Union and more than three of the most tragic years of their life were connected with the Soviet Union and its communistic ideology. In the USSR, they starved, wandered, and were exploited and, at last, living in the USSR, many of them became orphans. Later, the Teheran children grew up and established families; grief about losses and sad memoirs were left in the past. They received education and restored belief in the humanity. All of them became loyal citizens of the Jewish state arisen in 1948. These educated people made a contribution to the development of the Israeli society, economy, and army. Thus, contribution of Henrietta Szold to the Jewish national spirit and culture was invaluable.

Moreover, Henrietta Szold made a huge work on the promotion of the Zionist ideas and the Jewish settlement movement in Palestine. It gradually expanded to the sizes of a federation, whose branches settled down on the territory of the USA and Canada. Providing medical services to Jewish settlers in Palestine was one of the primary activities of Hadassah; the first medical mission of Hadassah was developed at the end of World War I. When in 1918 there was a merger of Zionist groups in the USA into the American Zionist Organization, Henrietta Szold headed the department of education and promotion.

In August of 2001, there was the International Conference “Women of Hadassah”. Its participants represented hundreds of Americans of the Jewish origin who arrived to support and show the unity of the Jews of Israel and America. The Henrietta Szold Prize was established. People who contributed to the development of relationships of American and Jewish people are rewarded with this prize. There is a stamp with the portrait of Henrietta Szold against the Jewish University and her foundation for the Jewish people – the medical center “Hadassah”. Streets of many cities in Israel, the USA, and some other countries are called in her honor. The name of Henrietta Szold is included into the dictionary “Who is who in the Jewish History” published in London in 1974 (Dash 203).

Although Szold often felt slighted by the international and American male Zionist leadership, her independence from the various contentious movement factions, her growing symbolic role as a Zionist icon, and her ability to get things done resulted in her election to a series of influential roles within Palestine’s Jewish community (referred to as the Yishuv). (Jewish Women’s Archive)

Still, Henrietta Szold is considered to be a true heroine of the American-Jewish history, a clever woman, a Jewish with strongly developed national self-consciousness, and a person who saved many thousands of lives. Henrietta got the nickname “the mother of Yishuv” for her active activity in the field of Zionistic movements.

Part IV. My Evaluation of the Work and Life of Henrietta Szold

For me, Henrietta Szold is the woman with a strong character, man’s persistency, and female care for children and the oppressed. If Henrietta Szold was born not in 1860, but a century later, she would, probably, become a rabbi. Being one of eight daughters of the Baltimore rabbi, she passionately and selflessly studied Judaism, having achieved even a permission to study the Jewish texts in the Jewish theological seminary.

Henrietta Szold anticipated emancipation of the Jewish women. Creation of the women’s Jewish organization Hadassah, which was the largest in the American history, became an outstanding contribution of Henrietta Szold to the Jewish life. Although Hadassah was the Zionist organization, the care for the health of inhabitants of Eretz-Israel, both Jews and Arabs, was the main thing in her activity. The personal tragedy of the life of Szold impressed me greatly. She was never married and did not realize her maternity potential despite the fact that her own life was devoted to the rescue of children. Moreover, the only true love in her life was one-sided and resulted in a long-lasting despair.

Henrietta Szold was sure that her strong intention to revive Jewish culture and civilization in Palestine would be successful. The woman became the symbol of the Zionist movement and an ideal of Hadassah. During her life, she received a lot of honors and rewards except one, which may be deemed the most important, as she did not have children. However, she was ready to give away everything for a hope to have at least one own child. Henrietta Szold is the example of a strong-willed woman who made a lot for her nation.

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