Had Henrietta Szold been born in 1960 instead of 1860, she probably would have become a rabbi. Born on December 21, 1960, one of eight daughters of a Baltimore rabbi, Szold was a passionate and accomplished student of Judaism.
In 1877, Szold graduated from Western High School. For fifteen years she taught at Miss Adam’s School and Oheb Shalom religious school, and gave Bible and history courses for adults. Highly educated in Jewish studies, she edited Professor Marcus Jastrow’s Talmudic Dictionary. To further her own education, she attended public lectures at Johns Hopkins University and the Peabody Institute.
She was given permission to study Jewish texts at the then male-only Jewish Theological Seminary in 1902, 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 established the first American night school to provide English language instruction and vocational skills for Russian Jewish immigrants in Baltimore. Beginning in 1893, she worked as the first editor for the Jewish Publication Society, a position she retained for over 23 years. “The sole woman at the JPS, Szold’s duties included the translation of a dozen works, writing articles of her own, editing the books, and overseeing the publication schedule.
In 1896, one month before Theodor Herzl published Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), Szold described her vision of a Jewish state in Palestine as a place to ingather Diaspora Jewry and revive Jewish culture. In 1898, the Federation of American Zionists elected Szold as the only female member of its executive committee. During World War I, she was the only woman on the Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs.
In 1899, she took on the lion’s share of producing the first American Jewish Year Book, of which she was sole editor from 1904 to 1908. She also collaborated in the compilation of the Jewish Encyclopedia.
Her commitment to Zionism was heightened by a trip to Palestine in 1909, at age 49. Here, she discovered her life’s mission: the health, education and welfare of the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish community of Palestine). Szold joined six other women to found Hadassah, which recruited American Jewish women to upgrade health care in Palestine and was committed to meeting the health needs of both Jews and Arabs.
Hadassah’s first project was the inauguration of an American-style visiting nurse program in Jerusalem. Hadassah funded hospitals, a medical school, dental facilities, x-ray clinics, infant welfare stations, soup kitchens and other services for Palestine’s Jewish and Arab inhabitants. Szold persuaded her colleagues that practical programs open to all were critical to Jewish survival in the Holy Land.
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 camps.
In October 1934, Szold laid the cornerstone of the new Rothschild-Hadassah-University Hospital on Mount Scopus. On April 13, 1948, a month before the State of Israel was declared, Arab troops ambushed and murdered seventy-seven Jewish doctors and nurses on their way to the hospital. As soon as the British pulled out of the country in mid-May of 1948, the Arabs seized control of the road to Mount Scopus cutting Hadassah off from the rest of the city. The Israeli government and Hadassah donors subsequently re-founded the hospital in Ein Kerem in Israeli West Jerusalem in 1961. The Mt. Scopus hospital reopened after Israel unified Jerusalem during the 1967 War.
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 significant 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.
Hadassah was at one time the largest Jewish organization in the United States. It remains one of the largest with roughly 330,000 members.
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.”
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.”
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 of lives.
In 1949, Hadassah inaugurated the Henrietta Szold prize, which was awarded that year to Eleanor Roosevelt.
The Henrietta Szold Institute, National Institute for Research in the Behavioral Sciences, located in Jerusalem, is named after her. The institute is Israel’s foremost planner of behavioral science intervention and training programs.
Public School 134 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in New York City is also named after her.
In Israel, Mother’s Day is celebrated on the day that Szold died, on the 30th of Shevat.
In the northwest corner of Szold’s home city of Baltimore, Szold Drive, a short street in a residential neighborhood with homes built in the 1950s, is named after her.
In New York City, Szold Place, formerly Dry Dock Street runs from East 10th Street to East 12th Street.