Light in the Darkness
Driving along Henrietta Szold Street up to Hadassah Medical Center, I wondered what the connection between this woman and Hadassah was. While waiting for my medical appointment, I first searched her name in Google Maps and learned that 25 cities across the country have streets named in her memory. That was the first clue that Henrietta Szold was truly extraordinary. I then continued my research, which confirmed my hunch.
While most people feel fortunate to have had a meaningful career, the multi-talented and indefatigable Henrietta Szold was a dynamo who strung together a handful of enormously successful and impactful careers. She led dozens of initiatives, but for the sake of brevity, we will focus on her “main” careers.
Born in 1860, Szold’s first career was as a master teacher, where she spent nearly fifteen years teaching students a broad range of subjects, including languages, mathematics, history and botany. During this period, she also taught Judaic courses to children and adults in the local synagogue.
Overlapping this time period, she developed a night school program to educate the many Jews who had emigrated to the United States from Russia in the 1880s following the state-supported anti-Jewish riots. The educational program grew dramatically, and by 1898, more than 5,000 immigrants had attended the program.
In 1893, Szold became the executive secretary of the Jewish Publication Society of America, in which she served as the editor in chief for over two decades. She translated numerous important works, wrote articles, edited books, served as the editor of the American Jewish Year Book, and also collaborated in compiling the Jewish Encyclopedia.
In 1909, Henrietta Szold traveled to Palestine, which became a major turning point in her life. Shocked by rampant disease and poor health conditions, she was inspired to mobilize a small women’s organization called the Hadassah Study Circle. Szold was elected president of a new division called Daughters of Zion – Hadassah Chapter. Under her stewardship, the organization became the largest Zionist group in the United States, and successfully created the medical, educational, and social service infrastructure that helped turn the dream of a Jewish state into a reality. Szold served Hadassah – first from the United States and then, starting in 1920, from within Palestine – until her resignation in 1926, and continued to play a significant role for many more years as the organization’s honorary president.
Henrietta Szold’s final, and – in her estimation – most important career was as the director of Youth Aliyah, which brought young men and women from the throes of Nazi Europe to Palestine. With the Nazi rise to power in Germany in 1933, Youth Aliyah was hatched, and Szold became director of this institution. She bravely traveled to Nazi Berlin to encourage parents to send their children to Palestine, supervised the transfer of the children’s groups from Europe to Palestine, and ensured they arrived safely, greeting each child personally upon arrival. In addition, she oversaw the accommodations, and visited each colony on a regular basis to monitor the children's progress.
Despite immense obstacles dealing with the British Mandate government, the program had cared for over 30,000 children. Henrietta Szold, who had lamented having never given birth to her own children, poignantly became known as the "mother of the yishuv." How appropriate that, among the thousands of people who joined the procession at her funeral on a cold snowy January day in 1945, she was buried by a large cadre of her “children” whom she helped rescue, and one of her “sons” recited the Mourner’s Kaddish.
Gedaliah Borvick is the founder of My Israel Home (www.myisraelhome.com), a real estate agency focused on helping people from abroad buy and sell homes in Israel. To sign up for his monthly market updates, contact him at email@example.com.