Biography of Henrietta Szold

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


An 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 student”. 

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 Zionist executive.

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. Bimhayro v’yomeynoo.

Shalom u’vracha.

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.

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