Hen­ri­et­ta Szold: Hadas­sah and the Zion­ist Dream

  • Review
By – March 4, 2024

The name Hen­ri­et­ta Szold has long been syn­ony­mous with Hadas­sah, the orga­ni­za­tion she found­ed. That was a tow­er­ing achieve­ment: for more than a cen­tu­ry, Hadas­sah has pro­vid­ed life-chang­ing and life-sav­ing med­ical ser­vices in Israel, and today it is by far the largest Jew­ish mem­ber­ship orga­ni­za­tion in America. 

Yet, as Francine Klags­brun demon­strates in this biog­ra­phy, Szold did much more than cre­ate that mas­sive and essen­tial insti­tu­tion. She also played a key role in the pub­li­ca­tion of two land­mark works of Jew­ish schol­ar­ship. As a trans­la­tor and edi­tor at the Jew­ish Pub­li­ca­tion Soci­ety, she worked close­ly with Louis Ginzberg on his mul­ti-vol­ume Leg­ends of the Jews, and with Mar­cus Jas­trow on his Dic­tio­nary of the Tal­mud, Midrash and Tar­gu­mim. Both works remain stan­dard ref­er­ences today.

Szold was a Zion­ist even before Theodor Her­zl pub­lished The Jew­ish State. Her­zl lat­er asked her to orga­nize Jew­ish women in Amer­i­ca around Zion­ism, and in 1912, a group of women found­ed the Hadas­sah chap­ter of Daugh­ters of Zion.” By 1917, they were a nation­al Zion­ist orga­ni­za­tion with thir­ty-three chap­ters, called, sim­ply, Hadas­sah.” 

In her trav­els to Ottoman Pales­tine, Szold saw first­hand the ill effects of malar­ia and unclean liv­ing con­di­tions. This prompt­ed her to raise hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars — in today’s dol­lars, more than three mil­lion — to bring dozens of doc­tors and nurs­es to Pales­tine. Lat­er, after mov­ing there, she became act­ing direc­tor of the Amer­i­can Zion­ist Med­ical Unit, and over­saw the work of four hun­dred med­ical pro­fes­sion­als with­out hav­ing had any med­ical train­ing her­self — a vivid demon­stra­tion of her nat­ur­al lead­er­ship abilities.

That alone would have been an extra­or­di­nary achieve­ment, but there’s more. Rec­og­niz­ing the neces­si­ty of orga­niz­ing pub­lic edu­ca­tion in Pales­tine, Szold spent three months in the US rais­ing funds. There, she attract­ed a lead­ing Amer­i­can edu­ca­tor to join her in Pales­tine. See­ing that social ser­vices were min­i­mal, she helped orga­nize social work­ers to assist fam­i­lies. And she was fear­less: when financier Felix War­burg, a top offi­cial at the Jew­ish Agency, tried to inter­fere with her plans, she bold­ly con­front­ed him.

With the rise of the Nazism in Ger­many, Szold orga­nized the Youth Aliyah to reset­tle Ger­man chil­dren in kib­butz­im — chil­dren whom she per­son­al­ly vis­it­ed again and again. She trav­eled to Hitler’s Berlin to help coor­di­nate efforts there, and raised mon­ey to res­cue chil­dren flee­ing Roma­nia and the Sovi­et Union. Szold was tru­ly self­less: when Hadas­sah made her a gift of twen­ty-five thou­sand dol­lars in hon­or of her eight­i­eth birth­day, she used it to cre­ate a girls’ shel­ter for daugh­ters of poor fam­i­lies. Her life is a mod­el of giv­ing: she devot­ed her con­sid­er­able tal­ents to the wel­fare of others.

Francine Klags­brun is the ide­al biog­ra­ph­er for Szold. Deeply learned in Jew­ish life and cul­ture, she recounts both the heart­break and the tri­umphs of a great Jew­ish leader, with enor­mous empa­thy for Szold’s per­son­al dis­ap­point­ments as well as deep appre­ci­a­tion for her intel­lect, courage, resource­ful­ness, and accom­plish­ments. It’s a com­pelling and inspir­ing story.

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