To Repair a Bro­ken World: The Life of Hen­ri­et­ta Szold, Founder of Hadassah

Dvo­ra Hacohen

By – August 10, 2021

What is a biog­ra­ph­er to do, when the sub­ject is admirable and accom­plished, but their inner life is less than thrilling? After all, it’s the under­ly­ing premise of biog­ra­phy, that by exam­in­ing the person’s life — their upbring­ing, their chal­lenges, their pas­sions — we can under­stand what led them to the great works they accom­plished. The life of Hen­ri­et­ta Szold — who as a young woman repeat­ed­ly pinned mar­riage hopes on men who aban­doned her for unex­pect­ed rivals, who worked her­self into the ground for faint praise, who con­sid­ered it a sort of virtue nev­er to ask for any­thing in return for her efforts — could be a hard sell for mod­ern read­ers. We like our heroes — par­tic­u­lar­ly our women — feisty and strong; meek­ness, even in his­tor­i­cal con­text, seems like weakness.

Hen­ri­et­ta Szold, old­est of eight daugh­ters of an esteemed Bal­ti­more rab­bi, grew up learn­ing it was a woman’s job to make a good home, to raise fine chil­dren, and to help her hus­band how­ev­er she could. If edu­cat­ed, like Szold, a woman might be a help­mate in some man’s work, but to expect acknowl­edge­ment for her efforts, or prop­er pay, would have been unseem­ly. Bound­aries of female respectabil­i­ty were all the more pow­er­ful for nev­er need­ing to be said. While Haco­hen imag­ines the frus­tra­tion young Szold must have felt, know­ing that if she were a man her pro­fes­sion­al options would have been lim­it­less — it is not entire­ly clear that Szold actu­al­ly expe­ri­enced such a fem­i­nist” moment.

Cru­el­ly dis­ap­point­ed in romance, Szold also broke away away from her end­less work for the Jew­ish Pub­li­ca­tion Soci­ety and for var­i­ous male-dom­i­nat­ed Zion­ist orga­ni­za­tions. Hadas­sah, her new project, allowed her to use all her skills and expe­ri­ences for a cause she per­son­al­ly believed in — the mobi­liza­tion of Amer­i­can Jew­ish women in the Zion­ist cause. Her orga­niz­ing instincts — how to devel­op grass­roots sup­port, how to fundraise suc­cess­ful­ly, how to choose clear, sup­port­able goals — all came togeth­er in this new work. Before long, Szold her­self was in Pales­tine tack­ling Hadassah’s sig­na­ture project, med­ical care in the Yishuv. Fundrais­ing with donors and, at the same time, build­ing a health­care sys­tem, was not easy. After earn­ing respect for restruc­tur­ing the med­ical sys­tem, she was asked to tack­le edu­ca­tion and social ser­vices in Manda­to­ry Pales­tine. Szold’s Yishuv work was hard; she had to raise the mon­ey for her projects and con­vince peo­ple this was pro­fes­sion­al work and not char­i­ty, all the while nav­i­gat­ing the ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences of var­i­ous reli­gious and polit­i­cal factions.

Szold was in her sev­en­ties when the rise of fas­cism in Europe pre­sent­ed her with her biggest chal­lenge ever: the Youth Aliyah, the res­cue of endan­gered Jew­ish chil­dren from Europe and the near East to set­tle them in Pales­tine. Harangu­ing British offi­cials for excep­tions to their immi­gra­tion restric­tions, attend­ing per­son­al­ly to the con­voys of chil­dren, inspect­ing the reset­tle­ment facil­i­ties — no one but Szold would have made such a hands-on com­mit­ment to the well-being of these refugees. That she died in the midst of this great work seems inevitable; retire­ment was nev­er part of her plans.

In some ways, Haco­hen has evad­ed the prob­lem of Szold’s self-effac­ing char­ac­ter by inter­twin­ing it with a mini-biog­ra­phy of the Yishuv. Some­how this seems quite appro­pri­ate, as Szold was a woman who ulti­mate­ly put her life’s work above her per­son­al needs.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

Discussion Questions

Through diaries, archival doc­u­ments, and let­ters, his­to­ri­an Devo­rah Haco­hen presents a fas­ci­nat­ing biog­ra­phy of Hen­ri­et­ta Szold — writer, edi­tor, edu­ca­tor, and founder of Hadas­sah. Haco­hen por­trays the relent­less pas­sion of Szold, who devot­ed her life to cre­at­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties both for Jew­ish women and also for the dis­ad­van­taged. To Repair a Bro­ken World hon­ors Szold’s human­is­tic vision and her pur­suit of jus­tice. An impres­sive work of schol­ar­ship and an exem­plary biog­ra­phy of one of Judais­m’s most extra­or­di­nary figures.