by Dr. Gerhard Falk
American Woman - Henrietta Szold (1860 - 1945)
She was a multi-talented woman who did more for the Jewish people in a lifetime
than can be expected of anyone were we to live two lives. She founded Hadassah,
or Esther, the National Women’s Zionist Organization in 1912. Hadassah has
more members than any other Zionist organization anywhere. She developed Youth
Aliyah, which brought young people to Israel even before the liberation of the
land in 1948. She achieved greatly as a writer, having become the literary
secretary of the Jewish Publication Society of America. In that position she
edited numerous books. Because she knew French, German, Hebrew and Yiddish
she also translated many important works into English.
Henritta Szold was born in Baltimore, shortly before the beginning of the Civil
War. The daughter of a rabbi, she enrolled at Western Female High School, where
she was the best student in her class. Directly after high school, she began her
first career as a teacher. In 1878 women were not admitted to college. Therefore
she began teaching directly after high school. She taught French, German and
algebra at a private school. Public schools did not exist here until late in the
eighteenth century, and compulsory public education was not initiated until the
First World War.
After the Russian Czar blamed the Jews for the murder of his father and
instigated wide spread persecutions, large numbers of European Jews arrived in
Baltimore in the 1880’s. Henrietta Szold therefore taught English and
“civics”, i.e. American history, to these refugees so that they could
qualify for citizenship (Unlike Mexican “illegals”, nationals other than
Mexicans must wait 5 years and pass an English and history exam to become
citizens. Service in the U.S. armed forces exempts from these requirements).
Szold moved to New York and at the age of 43 enrolled in the Jewish Theological
Seminary of America. Women were not normally admitted to the JTS at that time.
Therefore she had to sign an agreement not to become a rabbi. Instead, her
brilliant background and proven ability gave her the status of “special
In 1920, Henrietta Szold moved to Jerusalem where she directed the Hadassah
Medical Organization. That organization led to the development of a medical
school, a nursing school, a dental school and hospitals, including the Hadassah
hospital in Jerusalem.
In 1925 she was forced to resign her association with the organization she had
founded because the Eastern European men who had now become the majority of Jews
in Israel resented her as a woman and an “outsider”, that is, an American.
Nevertheless, she opened Israel’s first school of social work. That school is
today the school of social work at the Hebrew University. In 1927 she was
elected to the Zionist Congress and then became the first woman member of the
Beginning in 1934, shortly after the rise of Hitler in Germany, she organized
the immigration of thousands of Jewish youth to Israel. She developed
agricultural training schools called Hachsharah or preparation in Europe. On
arrival in Israel she placed newly arrived children in kibbutzim according to
their religious background. It should be remembered that many German Jewish
parents sent their children to Israel, England or America because no one would
take the adults while children were sometimes welcomed. As a result there are
even now German Jews in the U.S. who came here in the so-called “youth
transports”, having left their parents behind to die in the gas ovens.
In Israel this movement was called “youth aliyah” and was funded by
Hadassah. Henrietta Szold became the director of the ‘youth aliyah”, which
rescued innumerable children from the Nazi horrors and from the Soviet Union.
Henrietta Szold became the American “ambassador” to the Jews of Israel and
the Israeli “ambassador” to the American Jewish community before Israel had
achieved independence. She was a major force in bringing about American
financial support for Israel.
Her life was a blessing to the Jewish people. May the memory of her devotion to
Am Yisroel be a blessing for all of us today and for all the years to come.
Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of
numerous publications, including Football
& American Identity (2005) & Youth
Culture and the Generation Gap (2005) with Dr. Ursula A. Falk.