This Day in Jewish History / A Profound Zionist and Hadassah Founder Dies

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On February 13, 1945, Henrietta Szold, American Zionist leader, and founder of some of Israel’s most important social and educational institutions, died in Jerusalem at age 84.

Henrietta Szold was born December 21, 1860, in Baltimore, Maryland, the daughter of Rabbi Benjamin and Sophie Szold. Her intellectual skills became evident at a young age. After graduating high school, she taught both at the religious school of her father’s synagogue and at a girls’ private school in Baltimore.

One of her early projects, in the 1880s, was the establishment of a night school for Russian Jewish immigrants to help them learn English and practical skills for life in the United States. Later, when she studied at the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, in New York, she taught English to some of her European-born teachers.

In 1902 Solomon Schechter, the president of JTS, agreed to let Szold study at the all-male rabbinical school on the condition that she not seek ordination, something she most likely would have aspired to, had it been possible. (After her mother’s death, in 1916, Szold insisted on saying the Kaddish memorial prayer for her, a practice both unorthodox and un-Orthodox.) In the meantime, she had also become an editor at the Jewish Publication Society, where she played an important role for some two decades, taking key roles in the creation of such works as Louis Ginzberg’s “Legends of the Jews,” and the undertaking of the Society’s ground-breaking 1917 translation of the Hebrew Bible into English.

Szold was involved in Zionist affairs from early on, and paid her first visit to Palestine in 1909. Three years later she and a group of other American women established Daughters of Zion-Hadassah Chapter. This became Hadassah, today an international organization with more than 300,000 members.

Their first project was to set up a visiting nursing service in Jerusalem, in 1913. This was followed five years later with the organization of the American Zionist Medical Unit, which brought American doctors to Palestine and established a field hospital here. This in turn was followed by the creation of medical, nursing and dental schools and Hadassah Hospital, which is supported by the Hadassah Women’s Organization to this day.

Szold was always insistent that the services established by the organization be available to all residents of Eretz Israel; she also was active in the Brit Shalom organization, which advocated establishment of a Jewish-Arab state.

She herself only settled in Palestine in 1920, when she was 60, and then stayed for only three years before returning to the United States for two years. Upon her return to Jerusalem, with her appointment to the three-member Palestine Executive of the World Zionist Organization, she assumed responsibility for education and social affairs in the emerging state.

She helped establish social-service departments in the country’s large cities and, in 1935, set up the school of social work at the Hebrew University. In 1933, she had the WZO take on responsibility for the Youth Aliyah program established by Recha Freier to bring German Jewish children to Palestine, saving them from the gathering storm in Europe.

Possibly the great tragedy of Henrietta Szold’s life was that she never married and never had children. “I would exchange everything for one child of my own,” she said at one point.

An Israeli postage stamp (1960) honoring Henrietta Szold.Credit: Israel Postage Authority
Boat named after Henrietta Szold, bringing Jewish refugees to Palestine, 1946.Credit: Dan Keinan

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