Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, is the largest of all Jewish Zionist women’s organizations, numbering more than 330,000 members, associates, and supporters. It is a member of the World Zionist Organization.
Though officially founded in New York in 1912 by Henrietta Szold, the inspiration for Hadassah came a number of years earlier when Szold and her mother traveled to Palestine for the first time. They were both shocked by what Szold described as the “misery, poverty, filth, disease” they saw there, so, upon returning to New York, the two women proposed to their study group that they take up the practical work of relieving Jewish suffering in Palestine.
In 1912, an initial group of 30 women attended a meeting at New York City’s Temple Emanu-El to discuss this idea. They quickly agreed to form a new organization called “Daughters of Zion, Hadassah Chapter,” elected Szold as president, and adopted a motto: “The healing of the daughter of my people.”
The first priority undertaken by the organization was to provide health services to Jewish women and children in Palestine. The new organization changed its name to “Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America” at its first annual convention in 1914, declaring that its mandate was “to promote Jewish institutions and enterprises in Palestine and to foster Zionist ideals in America.” Policy would be decided at future annual conventions with a central committee making decisions between conventions. Hadassah pledged to develop modern, American-style health and social welfare services in the yishuv, and promised members that their donations would go directly to support projects in Palestine. In 1918, Hadassah sent a 45-member medical team, the American Zionist Medical Unit (AZMU), to establish hospitals and clinics across Palestine. Clinics were established in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Safed and Tiberias.
Szold herself moved to Palestine in 1920 to administer Hadassah’s ever-expanding network of health facilities and social welfare programs and the following year, the AZMU was renamed the Hadassah Medical Organization or HMO.
Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, Hadassah continued to expand its programs in the yishuv. With Jewish immigrants arriving from all over the world, Hadassah’s health care workers tried to inculcate modern, Western ideas of health and preventive medicine while dealing with poor nutrition, high rates of illiteracy, patriarchal family structures, child labor, and child marriage.
In 1935, Hadassah became the sole American sponsor of the Youth Aliyah movement which rescued Jewish children from Nazi Europe and brought them to Palestine to be raised communally on kibbutzim. During World War II and in the years following, Hadassah helped Youth Aliyah to rescue, house, and educate thousands of young European Jewish refugees. This work, in turn, prepared Hadassah for its later role in helping the new State of Israel absorb the children of the Middle Eastern and North African Jews who arrived, en masse, during the first decade of statehood.
In 1939, the Rothschild-Hadassah University Hospital, the first teaching hospital and medical center in the country, opened on the campus of Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. In 1962, a new Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center in Ein Kerem was dedicated and, in 1962, as part of Hadassah’s Golden Anniversary celebration, a synagogue was dedicated at the Ein Kerem facility. The synagogue’s 12 stunning stained glass windows depicting the 12 tribes of Israel were designed by artist Marc Chagall and draw visitors from all over the world.
Following the Six-Day War in 1967, and the reunification of Jerusalem, the old hospital buildings on Mount Scopus were restored and expanded, and in 1975 the renewed medical center was inaugurated. Today the two modern medical centers in Jerusalem, in Ein Karem and on Mount Scopus, serve as leading teaching hospitals and include schools of nursing.
In 2005, Hadassah was nominated for the Nobel Prize in World Peace for its ongoing initiatives to use medicine as a bridge to peace.
In 2012, the U.S. Senate passed a simple resolution, sponsored by Senator Barbara Boxer of California and cosponsored by fourteen others, recognizing the 100th anniversary of the founding of Hadassah.
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