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Henrietta Szold

SZOLD, HENRIETTA (1860–1945), founder of *Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, and organizational leader and political figure in Palestine. Szold was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Her parents, Sophie (Schaar) and Rabbi Benjamin Szold, had arrived in Baltimore from Hungary in 1859, after her father was appointed rabbi of Congregation Oheb Shalom. Henrietta, the eldest of eight daughters, received the level of attention and education from her father that was usually reserved for a son. She was taught German (the household language), English, French, Hebrew, secular studies, and Judaism. In 1877, Szold graduated from Western Female High School. For nearly 15 years she taught French, German, botany, and mathematics at the Misses Adam's School in Baltimore. She also taught religious school and gave Bible and history courses for adults at Oheb Shalom. Szold attended public lectures at the Johns Hopkins University and the Peabody Institute, and served as Baltimore correspondent of the New York Jewish Messenger, signing her articles "Sulamith."

In 1880, Henrietta's father took her to Europe, where she was horrified to see the degrading conditions under which women prayed in Prague's Alt-Neu Shul. Upon her return to Baltimore, she witnessed the emergence of a Russian-Jewish ghetto as a product of mass immigration. Among these immigrants were Hebraists, Zionists, and other intellectuals who went on to organize the Isaac Baer Levinsohn Literary Society in 1888. With them, Henrietta Szold ran a model night school for immigrants, where she taught until 1893. Inspired by the Zionists she had met, she joined the newly organized Hebras Zion (the Zionist Association of Baltimore) in 1897. Because her father had trained her for a life in Jewish scholarship and had used her services for years as his literary secretary, she also began to volunteer for, and then became the paid secretary of, the editorial board of the *Jewish Publication Society (JPS), a position she held until 1916. 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 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.

After her father's death in 1902, Henrietta and her mother moved to New York. In addition to continuing her work for the Jewish Publication Society, she enrolled at the Jewish Theological Seminary to study Hebrew and Talmud, which she hoped would help her edit her father's manuscripts. Henrietta's acceptance was contingent on her signing a formal promise not to study for the rabbinate. She also joined the New York Hadassah Study Circle, whose members prepared papers on Jewish history and held discussions about Zionism. The physical pressures of her grueling work, plus an unrequited emotional involvement with JTS professor Louis *Ginzberg, whose writings she was editing and translating, resulted in a breakdown. In 1909, Henrietta took a six-month leave from her duties, and she and Sophie traveled to Europe and Palestine.

During her tour of the Holy Land, Szold was shaken by the misery she witnessed. Inspired by her mother's suggestion that Henrietta and her reading group devote their energies to practical work, Szold gathered her friends Sophia Berger, Emma Gottheil, Lotta Levvensohn, Mathilde Schechter, Gertrude Goldsmith, and Rosalia Phillips, and issued an invitation to women interested in "the promotion of Jewish institutions and enterprises in Palestine." On February 24, 1912, 38 women constituted the Hadassah Chapter of Daughters of Zion, elected Henrietta Szold as president, and chose nursing as their focus. The name was changed to Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, in 1914 at the second convention, by which time chapters in eight cities had already been established.

In 1916, Sophie died; at the same time, Judge Julian Mack and a group of fellow Zionists decided to offer Henrietta a lifetime stipend so that she could do her work unfettered. At the helm of the new organization of 4,000 women, Szold organized the American Zionist Medical Unit, consisting of doctors, nurses, administrators, vehicles, and drugs, which set sail for Palestine in June 1918 with support from the American Zionist Organization, Hadassah, and the Joint Distribution Committee. Szold was also placed in charge of Zionist educational and propaganda work for the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). At the end of 1919 she agreed to go to Palestine as its representative. Her remaining 25 years were spent working in Palestine, with occasional trips back to the United States. She became the director of the ZOA's medical unit, ran the Nurses' Training School, and directed health work in Jewish schools.

In 1923 Henrietta Szold returned to the U.S. to see her ailing sister and resumed the active presidency of a steadily expanding Hadassah. In 1926 she resigned and became honorary president. A year later she went back to Palestine as a member of the powerful and prestigious three-person executive of the World Zionist Organization, with the portfolio for health and education. In 1930 she again visited the U.S., where, to her dismay, Hadassah celebrated her 70th birthday with great flourish. When the *Va'ad Le'ummi of Palestine Jewry offered her a seat on its executive committee, she returned to accept the social welfare portfolio, through which she achieved a hygiene program, the rehabilitation of juvenile delinquents, and the establishment of vocational schools. When The Hebrew University opened, however, she was denied a seat on the board, because of her sex.

With the Nazi rise to power in Germany, Henrietta Szold understood the threat to Jewish survival. In 1932, a plan called *Youth Aliyah was conceived to send German Jewish adolescents to Palestine to complete their education. Szold became director of this institution, set up by the Jewish Agency in cooperation with a German-Jewish youth organization to train youth between the ages of 15 and 17, for transfer to kevutzot in Palestine. She personally greeted the first group, which arrived in 1934, and Hadassah raised funds in the U.S. to support the organization. Despite obstacles in dealing with the British Mandate government in acquiring immigration certificates, and in working with Jewish communities in both Germany and Palestine, by 1948 the program had cared for 30,000 children. Henrietta Szold, who had always wanted to give birth to "many children," had in a sense become the "mother of the yishuv."

In October 1934 Szold laid the cornerstone of the new Rothschild-Hadassah-University Hospital on Mount Scopus. In 1937 she traveled to Berlin in the interest of Youth Aliyah and went on to the Zionist Congress in Zurich to express her views against the British partition plan and in favor of the controversial notion of a bi-national Arab-Jewish state. During the Arab riots of 1936 and the accompanying "strike" against the government, and until the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Szold worked on behalf of Jewish children and local refugees fleeing Arab attacks. On her 80th birthday in 1940, Szold read her will to a group of friends and expressed her desire to provide for a center for research, publication, and coordination of national youth activities. After her death, the bureau was named Mosad Szold. On her 81st birthday, the Va'ad Le'ummi entrusted her with the planning of its Fund for Child and Youth Care. Two years later, with the help of her close associate, Hans Beyth, she supervised the arrival and care of Youth Aliyah children from all parts of Poland who had wandered for three and a half years. By 1944 Henrietta Szold's failing health prevented her from traveling to the U.S. to receive the degree of Doctor of Humanities from Boston University. It was awarded via a two-way radio broadcast. Later that year she contracted pneumonia and died after a prolonged stay in the hospital that she had done so much to build. To Henrietta Szold, Zionism was the balm for the wounds inflicted by history upon the Jewish people, "an ideal that can be embraced by all, no matter what their attitude may be to other Jewish questions."


I. Fineman, Woman of Valor (1961); A.L. Levin, The Szolds of Lombard Street (1960); M. Lowenthal. Henrietta Szold: Life and Letters (1942). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: B.R. Shargel, Lost Love: The Untold Story of Henrietta Szold (1997); S. Reinharz and M. Raider (eds.), American Jewish Women and the Zionist Enterprise (2005); B. Kessler (ed.), Daughter of Zion: Henrietta Szold and American Jewish Woman (1995).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.