(1860 - 1945)
Had Henrietta Szold been born in 1960 instead of 1860, she probably
would have become a rabbi. One of eight daughters of a Baltimore
rabbi, Szold was a passionate and accomplished student of Judaism.
She even won permission to study Jewish texts at the then male-only
Jewish Theological Seminary, on condition that she never agitate
to be granted rabbinic ordination. Later, she translated Heinrich
Graetz's monumental multivolume History of the Jews from
German into English
Szold was, in certain respects, a forerunner of Jewish women's
liberation. When her mother died in 1916, a close male friend,
Haym Peretz, volunteered to say the Mourner's Kaddish for the
dead woman. Szold graciously refused the offer. "I believe,"
she wrote him, "that the elimination of women from such duties
was never intended by our law and custom-women were freed from
positive duties when they could not perform them [because of family
responsibilities] but not when they could. It was never intended
that, if they could perform them, their performance of them should
not be considered as valuable and valid as when one of the male
sex performed them."
Szold's outstanding contribution to Jewish life was the creation
of the largest Jewish organization in American history, Hadassah
Women. Although Zionist, Hadassah particularly involved itself
in meeting the health needs of both Jews and Arabs in Palestine.
Today, the foremost hospital in Israel and the entire Middle East
is the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Szold insisted that the
most up-to-date medical treatment be extended to the
Arabs of Palestine as well as to the Jews, and Hadassah played
a major role in lowering Arab infant mortality. The Hadassah spirit
of volunteerism and nondiscrimination was unfortunately rejected
by the Arab leadership, which may have feared that its example
would lessen hatred between Jews and Arabs. In early 1948, just
before the State of Israel was declared, Arab troops ambushed
and murdered seventy-seven Jewish doctors and nurses from
During the 1930s, Szold involved Hadassah in a program to rescue
Jewish youth from Germany, and later from all of Europe. It is
estimated that the program she created, "Youth Aliyah,"
saved some 22,000 Jewish children from Hitler's concentration
The personal tragedy of Szold's life was that she never married;
this woman, whose life was devoted to saving the lives of children,
never had children of her own. While in her forties, she did fall
passionately in love with the great Talmud scholar Louis Ginzberg.
He was fifteen years her junior, and returned her feelings only
platonically. Shortly after their relationship ended, she wrote:
"Today it is four weeks since my only real happiness was
killed." Many years later, she confided to a friend: "I
would exchange everything for one child of my own."
To this day Henrietta Szold is regarded as one of the genuine
heroic figures of American-Jewish history, a scholarly woman,
a passionately committed Jew and a person who saved many thousands
The organization she founded, Hadassah, has as of 1990 about 350,000
members, and is the largest Jewish organization in the United
Sources: Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy. NY: William
Morrow and Co., 1991. Reprinted by permission of the author.