Henrietta Szold was a U.S. Jewish Zionist leader and founder of Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America. In 1942, she co-founded Ihud, a political party in Mandatory Palestine dedicated to a binational solution.
Henrietta Szold was born on December 21, 1860 in Baltimore, Maryland, United States. The oldest of the eight daughters of Rabbi Benjamin Szold of Baltimore, she was born soon after the family’s arrival in the United States from Hungary. Sophia (Schaar) Szold was her mother.
She was the eldest of eight daughters. In 1877, she 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 began teaching in an exclusive girls’ school while still young, and became involved in a number of social and civic groups in the Baltimore area, including an English night school for Russian immigrants. In managing and developing the night school, she first entered the field of fund raising. Her concern for “my Russians” became so absorbing that she wrote in a letter, “I have gone back to my early girlish longing to be a man. I am sure that if I were one I could mature plans of great benefit to them.” After her father’s death in 1902, she intended to gather, edit, and publish his scholarly writings. For this she felt she needed an appropriate education and so applied to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. They permitted her to attend (she was their first female student) on condition that she not aspire to accreditation for her work. At this time, she supported herself by working as secretary for the editorial board of the Jewish Publication Society. Her major task was editing the earnest annual editions of the American Jewish Year Book. In the course of time she became the outstanding figure of the JPS, which she built up and managed as well as acting as its main editor and translator.
Szold also began helping Louis Ginsburg, a professor at the seminary, with his great work - The Legends of the Jews. For her, this arrangement afforded more than intellectual fare. Nearly forty years old and unmarried, she felt an emotional attachment to this slightly younger man. When he returned from a holiday in Germany with a much younger wife, Szold felt betrayed. Several months of illness followed.
As she began to recover, she and her mother made their first journey to Eretz Israel in 1909. There she witnessed the misery, beauty, interest, and problems of the Holy Land. When she returned to the United States, she toured the country, giving speeches about Zionism. The initial women’s groups she formed later became the nucleus for Hadassah.
A gift from a friend and admirer, Judge Julian Mack, enabled Szold to devote all her time to Jewish philanthropic concerns, particularly Zionist ones. In 1915 Mack and other friends had assured her of an income for life — freeing her to volunteer her services for the good of the Jewish people. Szold resigned as secretary of the publications committee of the JPS, and took up the proofreading of their English translation of the Bible as her first piece of purely volunteer work.
Despite logging sixteen-hour days, she spoke of the empty part of her life, “I have always held that I should have had children, many children.”
In 1920 she again traveled to Palestine, intending a two-year stay to supervise the Zionist Medical Unit sent by Hadassah, and planning to be part of the International Zionist Commission, before returning to live somewhere near her sisters and increasing numbers of nieces and nephews in the United States. In fact, she was never to return to a permanent home in America; she spent the remainder of her life in Palestine.
Difficulties with the medical unit greeted her upon arrival. The resignations of forty-five doctors and a strike by seventeen student nurses tried her mettle during her first week. Within relatively short order, however, she calmed the situation. Soon there was a vast, efficiently run network of welfare stations, dispensaries, and laboratories throughout Palestine, supported by Hadassah, along with the Jerusalem Nurses’ Training School, and all under Szold’s aegis. This network delivered health services to both the Arab and Jewish sectors of the population, and educated them in preventative medicine in their homes and schools. In 1934 Szold proudly spoke at the cornerstone laying of the Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus, Jerusalem.
With the establishment of a Jewish self-governing body responsible for their internal affairs under the British Mandate, Szold was appointed as one of the three leaders of the nation in embryo. Holding the portfolio of health and education, she began working toward a women’s society for public welfare work. At the time of her seventieth birthday, she took on yet more work; “I am charging myself with the task of organizing the Central Bureau for the social work being done in the whole of Palestine.” The focus of her energies in this newly acquired enterprise was youth work, specifically, with juvenile offenders.
The youth work was prescient, just as Hitler was gaining ascendance in Germany. When Szold went to the London Conference on the German Jewish situation in October 1933, she was in a position to pull together the “threads of an organization for settling German youngsters among the kibbutzim of Palestine.” Returning to Palestine, she now held two responsible posts: the organization of social services and the immigration of the German- Jewish children. Youth Aliyah took children who were (or were soon to be) bereft of parents, uprooted them from the only culture they had known, threw them into a different part of the world, with a different language, and no nuclear family, and, instead of the urban or small-town life they had experienced, brought them into agricultural settlements. It succeeded, because of Szold’s ability at management, for which her organizational skills prepared her. Despite her advancing years, her vigor scarcely waned. She sat on hot buses for hours in order to greet personally each new arrivals and escort them to their new homes.
Szold did not lack vision. During the Arab riots of the late 1930s, she took charge of accommodating over five thousand refugees from Jaffa and Hebron. She laid the blame for the massacres on the Arab agitators, the British government’s evenhandedness, and the Jewish community’s refusal to deal with Arab-Jewish relationships. Of the last she wrote. "I believe there is a solution; and if we cannot find it, then I consider that Zionism has failed utterly.”
In 1896, one month before Theodor Herzl published his magnum opus, Der Judenstaat, 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 1909, at age 49, Szold traveled to Palestine for the first time and 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. 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. "In October 1934 Szold laid the cornerstone of the new Rothschild-Hadassah-University Hospital on Mount Scopus.
In the 1920s and 1930s she was a supporter of Brit Shalom, a small organization dedicated to Arab-Jewish unity and a binational solution. In 1942, she was one of the co-founders of the Ihud party which advocated the same program.
She wrote about Eretz Israel “If I were ten years younger, I would feel that my field is here,” she wrote, adding, “I think Zionism a more difficult aim to realize than I ever did before ... [but] if not Zionism, then nothing — then extinction for the Jews.”
Hadassah Women's Zionist Organization of America
1912 - 1945
Federation of American Zionists
1898 - 1909
Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs
1914 - 1918
Szold never married, and to her great sadness never had children of her own. While she was in her forties, she had an unrequited relationship with Talmudic scholar Rabbi Louis Ginzberg. He was fifteen years her junior, and he returned her feelings only platonically. After their relationship ended, she expressed her sadness: "Today it is four weeks since my only real happiness was killed." Years afterward, she said: "I would exchange everything for one child of my own."