Szold, Henrietta (1860–1945)

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Szold, Henrietta (1860–1945)

Fiercely practical founder of Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, who established a comprehensive network of public health services in pre-Israel Palestine. Pronunciation: Zold. Born Henrietta Szold on December 21, 1860, in Baltimore, Maryland; died on February 13, 1945, in Palestine; daughter of Benjamin Szold (a rabbi of Oheb Shalom Congregation, Baltimore, Maryland) and Sophie Schaar Szold; attended Western Female High School, Baltimore, 1877, and Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, 1902–05; never married.

Became a Baltimore correspondent for the New York Jewish Messenger (1877); taught at Misses Adams' French and English School for Girls, Baltimore (1878–92); worked as editor and translator, Jewish Publication Society of America (1888–1916); founded Russian night school, Baltimore (1889–93); was a founding member of Zionist Association of Baltimore (1893); made first visit to Palestine (1909); was honorary secretary for Jewish Agricultural Station, Palestine, and Federation of American Zionists (1910); founded Hadassah, Women's Zionist Organization of America, New York (1912), and was president (1912–26); helped organize American Zionist Medical Unit (1916); was executive in charge of Health and Education, World Zionist Organization (1927–30); awarded honorary Doctor of Hebrew Letters, Jewish Institute of Religion (1930); elected member of Vaad Leumi (General Jewish Council), Palestine (1931–33); served as director, Department of Social Welfare, Vaad Leumi, Palestine (1932–37); served as director, Youth Aliyah (1933–45); established Children's Foundation in Palestine (1941); awarded honorary Doctor of Humanities, Boston University (1944).

Henrietta Szold's first visit to Palestine in 1909 galvanized her Zionism. In 1881, Russian immigrants had introduced her to the philosophy that only creation of a national homeland could guarantee preservation of Jewish history, culture, language—and lives. During her tour of Palestine with her mother nearly 30 years later, she moved from philosophy to action. Szold was startled by the stark contrast between magnificent religious sites and the squalid living conditions endured by 600,000 Christian, Muslim, and Jewish residents. Only 12 Jewish doctors attended to the medical needs of 80,000 Jews. The first Jewish hospital had opened in 1854, but the number had increased to only four by the time of Szold's visit. Most Jews relied on folk remedies and amulets. If these failed, they sought the counsel not of doctors but of druggists who prescribed questionable cures. Palestine had no organized medical association to control standards and no central health agency to educate the population about causes and cures of widespread diseases. Szold wrote to her sisters, "There is so much strife, so much misery, so much to make the heart ache." Just before returning to the United States, Szold visited the Evelina de Rothschild School for Girls. Inside the school, regular visits from an eye doctor prevented the spread of trachoma. Outside, flies swarmed around other children's diseased eyes. The discrepancy proved to Szold that Palestine needed intensive public health education and modern medical care. Her mother reportedly encouraged her, "Here is work for you. Your group ought to do practical work in Palestine." On February 24, 1912, Szold took her mother's advice. She transformed her "group"—an informal circle of Jewish women studying Zionist philosophy—into the first chapter of Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America. Szold mobilized Hadassah to establish comprehensive public health services in Palestine, laying the groundwork for what would become the most advanced medical system in the Middle East.

Henrietta Szold was born on December 21, 1860, the first of eight daughters of Rabbi Benjamin Szold and Sophie Schaar Szold who had named her after Henriette Herz , a German Jew famous for her command of languages and her literary salon. Szold's parents had immigrated from Hungary to Baltimore, Maryland, only the year before, and Benjamin had become the rabbi of Oheb Shalom, a German-speaking congregation. But Harriet was born just four months before the Civil War erupted in the United States, and the Szolds struggled under tremendous inflation, shortages, and political uncertainty. During the war, Sophie Szold gave birth to two more daughters, Estella and Rebecca, neither of whom survived their first year. After the war, the Szolds had five more daughters: Rachel (b. 1865), Sadie (b. 1868), Johanna (b. 1871), Bertha (b. 1873) and Adele (b. 1876). Only Rachel, Bertha, Adele and Henrietta survived to mature adulthood.

Despite such tragedy, the Szolds encouraged their daughters' intellectual pursuits. Henrietta worked as her father's secretary and translator at Oheb Shalom, and he often discussed religion, politics and literature with her. In 1877, she graduated first in her class from Western Female High School. Less than a year later, she began teaching French, German, and Algebra at a local girls' finishing school, the Misses Adams' English and French School for Girls. During her 14-year tenure there, she also took on private students and taught religious classes at Oheb Shalom Congregation.

Teaching was just one outlet for her intellect. In 1877, the weekly New York Jewish Messenger hired her to report on events in Baltimore. Her column appeared under the pen name Shulamith. The newspaper later asked her to write general commentary on Jewish life. In 1888, Szold began volunteering for the Jewish Publication Society of America (JPS). A nonprofit

educational association, the JPS depended on volunteers to translate Jewish literature from Yiddish, Hebrew, German, and French. For the next five years, she worked from her home in Baltimore, translating and editing texts through the mail.

Szold might have been satisfied with a quiet career as a teacher and writer, but international events in 1881 changed her perspective. The Russian Revolution touched off a massive immigration of Russian Jews. In Baltimore, as in many other American cities, the existing Jewish population was mostly German. The increasingly successful members of this community were well assimilated in American culture and many were uncomfortable with the Russians' poverty and their overtly "foreign" language, clothing and habits. Despite their reservations, German-Jewish leaders established charities to assist the immigrants.

Rabbi Szold was among the many religious leaders who met the immigrants as they arrived at the port of Baltimore. Unlike most others, however, he often brought the Russian newcomers into his home. Henrietta accompanied her father to the docks and found jobs for the immigrants in Jewish-owned shops and businesses. In her father's study, she participated in their passionate discussions of literature, poetry, and Zionism. She strongly supported their efforts to become self-sufficient. In a Baltimore Sun editorial, she described the immigrants as "cultured, intelligent men and women, abreast of the times, speaking and reading several foreign languages and versed in history and literature. They need merely a vehicle in which to convey to their fellow workers an idea of their inner worth."

In that spirit, she helped the Russian-organized Hebrew Literary Society establish a night school in 1889. She gathered donations and rented two back rooms on the second floor of a store. Society members refurbished the space for classrooms and collected school supplies. During the first semester, 150 Russian immigrants registered for classes in English and American history. Students who could paid 30 cents a month in tuition, soon enabling Szold to offer $15 a month to teachers. In just three years, enrollment was up to 708 Russian, German and Polish immigrants—Jews and non-Jews alike.

In the fall of 1893, members of the Hebrew Literary Society organized the Zionist Association of Baltimore. Szold and her father became founding members, and she soon began public advocacy of Zionism. She gave her first lecture in 1896 at a meeting of the local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women. In 1899, she attended the second annual conference of the Federation of American Zionists, held in Baltimore, and was chosen as an honorary member of the executive committee.

Henrietta Szold's dedication to Zionism took root quickly, but it grew slowly. The Szold household underwent difficult changes in the last decade of the 19th century. Her sister Sadie died of pneumonia, and her father lost his job. In December 1891, Oheb Shalom congregation voted to replace Rabbi Szold. Although he was satisfied with the congregation's decision, Henrietta was troubled. She wrote to her sister, Bertha, "I cannot yet reconcile myself to the thought that the congregation is going to go its own way, and not look up to Papa as a guide."

More changes followed. That spring, the JPS offered Henrietta a full-time job in Philadelphia. With great trepidation, she resigned from her teaching positions and moved out of the Szold home for the first time. Her duties included public relations, editing, advertising and translation. She had no typewriter, no assistant and a small, sparsely furnished office. Szold was not averse to the hard work and long hours, but she found living away from home difficult. She left Philadelphia when her father became ill in 1895, taking her work to Baltimore. She edited and translated JPS books until 1916. Her name appears in The American Jewish Yearbook, a massive History of the Jews and other volumes.

Benjamin Szold died during the summer of 1902, and Henrietta was nearly immobilized with grief. She decided to edit and publish his papers in an effort to keep alive their intellectual partnership, but she thought the project required better knowledge of the Talmud. At a time when Jewish women were excluded from formal religious study and practice, she appealed for admission to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. The Seminary opened in the fall of 1902, staffed by scholars well educated in Orthodoxy but open to Reform—a theological balance that would later become Conservative Judaism. Szold had met Dr. Solomon Schecter, a rabbinical professor from Cambridge, England, who was president of the school, and he strongly supported her application. The Seminary admitted her in 1903 as a special student. She was the first woman to study there.

In New York, she continued to explore Zionism, attending regular meetings of the Federation of American Zionists. In 1905, she met Judah Magnes, an unabashedly Zionist rabbi at the head of the staunchly anti-Zionist Temple Emanu-El. In 1907, he invited her to join his secretary's study circle. Similar groups of Jewish women had been organized across New York to discuss Zionism. Although she was twice the age of most members, Szold joined the Hadassah Study Circle. She deepened her intellectual commitment to Palestine through her interaction with men like Magnes and a growing circle of women Zionists.

At the same time, Szold became increasingly bored in her formal classes, since she was more familiar with Talmudic study than she had assumed. In fact, she had a great deal to offer the Seminary professors, many of whom spoke little or no English. She organized classes to help them, and scholars like Louis Ginzberg began looking to her as a teacher. Szold and Ginzberg developed a strong attachment. Szold stopped attending classes at the Seminary in 1905 without completing her father's work, and focused on her professional—and personal—relationship with Ginzberg. She worked with him on his book Geonica, translated his lecture notes and, for the JPS, edited his masterpiece, The Legends of the Jews. Ginzberg married another woman in 1908. Disappointed, Szold asked the JPS to assign another editor to his work. She took a leave of absence, and she and her mother began their six-month tour of Europe and the Middle East in June 1909.

Although her reasons for leaving the country were personal, the journey proved crucial in her political development. In November 1909, she wrote, "The result is that I am still a Zionist, that I think Zionism is a more difficult aim to realize than I ever did before, and, finally, that I am more than ever convinced that if not Zionism, than nothing—then extinction for the Jew." At first, she channeled her new energies into work for the Federation of American Zionists. She was elected its honorary secretary in 1910 and began organizing the group's financial records. She wrote to Schechter, "I cannot flatter myself that I am doing Zionist work; cleaning up other people's Aegean stables is too far removed from Jewish ideal hopes." In the early months of 1911, she resigned her position, determined to organize American women for practical work in Palestine.

In February 1912, she began working with Emma Gottheil and a committee of women from New York study circles to formally organize women Zionists. Attracted by an invitation to establish a group for "the promotion of Jewish enterprises in Palestine and the fostering of Jewish ideals," 38 women attended the organizational meeting on February 24. In the vestry of Temple Emanu-El, they drew up by-laws, naming their organization the Daughters of Zion and their chapter Hadassah. Henrietta Szold, who had been elected president, asked members to decide on a project they could begin in Palestine. They all agreed on the dire need for a public health program, including maternal care and a visiting nurse system. At the organization's first board meeting on April 4, however, they voted to wait until they had at least 300 members before initiating a project.

But Henrietta Szold did not wait. She met with Nathan Straus (brother-in-law of Ida Straus ) in December 1912. Straus, a well-known public health advocate and department store magnate, had recently established a prenatal care center in Jerusalem. He told Szold he would pay travel expenses and four months' salary for one nurse if the Daughters of Zion could support her for two years in Palestine. There was one condition: the nurse had to be ready to leave for Palestine with his family on January 18, 1913. Szold calculated that her group needed to raise $2,400 to hold up their end of the bargain.

On January 1, she called an emergency board meeting. Her organization had only 157 members and $542 in dues, and the board doubted they could meet Straus' challenge. Nonetheless, they began working. Lobbying among non-Zionist Jewish organizations in Chicago, founding member Eva Leon quickly raised enough money to support two nurses: Rose Kaplan from Mount Sinai and Rachel Landy , a non-Zionist from Cleveland.

On January 18, Eva Leon, Nathan Straus, his wife Lina Gutherz Straus , and the nurses left for Palestine to establish a settlement house. Szold left for a speaking tour of Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and other cities where she successfully organized new chapters of the Daughters of Zion. By February 1913, she had collected enough money to affiliate with the Federation of American Zionists. The Daughters of Zion held their first national convention in June 1914 and formally changed their name to Hadassah.

Sending the nurses to Palestine was Szold's first victory for Hadassah, but the real work had only just begun. Kaplan and Landy set up a settlement house and struggled to establish a visiting nurse program in Palestine. In 1914, Dr. Helena Kagan arrived there from Switzerland, determined to set up maternal and child-care centers. All three women encountered resistance from doctors and patients unaccustomed to women practicing medicine. Together, the three established a maternal-care clinic and increased trachoma prevention in the schools.

With the outbreak of World War I, Palestine was cut off from supplies and communications. Hadassah urged the nurses to return home, but both shifted their efforts to refugee camps in Egypt. Palestine was increasingly devastated by disease and starvation. Rose Kaplan became ill herself. She returned home for cancer treatments in February 1915, and Rachel Landy followed that fall. Dr. Kagan remained in Jerusalem, repeatedly writing to Hadassah for assistance. Their responses never reached her.

As the situation became more desperate, the World Zionist Organization in Copenhagen called for the establishment of an emergency medical unit. In 1916, they asked the Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs in New York to establish an American Zionist Medical Unit (AZMU). The Federation of American Zionists—of which Hadassah was an auxiliary—took on the project, and Louis Brandeis brought the idea directly to Henrietta Szold.

Szold agreed that Hadassah would send ten doctors and two nurses and medical supplies to Palestine, assuming the cost of $25,000. Hadassah's Board of Directors believed they were getting in over their heads, but Szold persisted. As war escalated, the cost of the AZMU venture multiplied; it was up to $100,000 by the fall of 1917. Szold made fundraising tours throughout the Eastern United States. Hadassah chapters rolled bandages and organized fundraising projects. Eva Leon negotiated for support from the Joint Distribution Committee, a non-Zionist umbrella organization of American Jewish charities.

Of course, money was not the only problem Hadassah faced. The entire mission was a tangle of diplomacy and red tape. The United States, keeping a watchful eye on the war in Europe, was unwilling to send supply ships or military transport to Palestine. Visas for medical personnel were impossible to obtain because Turkish Palestine was part of the enemy Ottoman Empire. The United States entered the war in April 1917, and Zionists began negotiating to send the Unit to Palestine on allied British military ships.

Henrietta Szold balked at the idea of sending the AZMU into Palestine on the backs of soldiers. While many American Jews were expressing their support for the war and aligning themselves with American allies, Szold, Rabbi Judah Magnes and others had become vocal pacifists. In January 1917, just months before the United States entered the war, Szold joined the People's Council of America for Peace and Democracy. "I am anti-war, and anti-this-war and anti-all wars," she explained.

Her Zionist peers feared she was obstructing both the progress of the AZMU and the larger purpose of Zionism. Jewish people must participate in an allied victory, they argued, in order to negotiate the establishment of a Jewish Nation in the postwar Middle East. They urged Szold to reconsider. She staged a brief protest and considered resigning from Hadassah. Ultimately, she decided to remain in the Zionist circle to combat famine and disease in war-torn Palestine. She regretfully resigned from the People's Council in October.

On November 2, 1917, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, formally supporting the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Arab riots broke out almost immediately, requiring seven more months of military planning and diplomacy before Hadassah's AZMU could embark. In June 1918, 44 Americans arrived in Palestine, blue Stars of David on their medical uniforms. Szold remained in the United States for nearly two more years, raising more money for the Unit.

But the AZMU proved worth the expense. The school hygiene, maternal and child care and nurse training programs the Unit established were firmly rooted in Palestine by 1919—and Hadassah with them. In 1929, Szold wrote, "The Hadassah Medical Organization came into this country as a war relief organization and remained in the land as a peace organization." Indeed, the Unit enabled Hadassah to lay the groundwork of an impressive network of services. In February 1919, Hadassah established a nursing school and began translating medical textbooks into Hebrew for the students. The first class graduated in 1921, just in time to begin replacing the AZMU nurses who had begun pulling out of Palestine.

Henrietta Szold finally moved to Palestine in 1920 and began overseeing the daily operation of Hadassah projects. Despite its enormous victories, Hadassah struggled for more than a decade after the war. European Jewish immigration to Palestine increased steadily while donations and funding decreased dramatically. The World Zionist Organization cut Hadassah's budget by two-thirds. Most American Jews lost interest in Zionism when the Balfour Declaration did not immediately result in a Jewish state, and membership in Hadassah and other American organizations dwindled. In Palestine, Henrietta Szold struggled under the weight of unpaid bills for everything from electricity to groceries and medical supplies. She was often unable to pay salaries. Even a $20,000 donation from Nathan Straus covered only 25% of their debts. In 1932, she wrote to Edgar Behrend, "I confess that I am beginning to think that the time for retirement from such intensive, straining activity as I have been drawn into has arrived. I confess to homesickness, too. On the other hand, when I begin to plan the retreat, I feel like a deserter."

Henrietta Szold was beginning to prepare for her retirement to Baltimore in 1931, but she was elected to the seven-member executive committee of the Vaad Leumi, Palestine's Jewish Assembly. As a member of the Vaad Leumi, she assisted in transferring responsibility for health and educational projects from Zionist groups to local Jewish community organizations. She also took the lead in establishing a central social service bureau. The Vaad Leumi envisioned the bureau as an information clearinghouse, but Szold helped them plan a more modern department of Social Welfare, staffed by social workers and supported by a corps of volunteers. Initially funded by a grant from the American-based Palestine Endowment Fund, the Department opened three social work facilities in 1932, and Szold ran them until 1937.

Social workers and other services proved crucial as immigrants streamed into Palestine. By 1932, economic depression in Germany had exposed latent anti-Semitism, and Jews were looking for a way to leave the country. In Berlin, Recha Freier began Youth Aliyah, an organization established to help Jewish children escape to Palestine. At first, Szold was skeptical of the plan. She feared that Palestine was ill-prepared to meet the needs of a massive influx of immigrants—especially children who would require supervision. History made her fears irrelevant. In 1933, Adolf Hitler rose to power, and over 30,000 German refugees streamed into Palestine, more than three times the 1932 number.

Szold visited Berlin in 1933, unprepared for the overt and vengeful anti-Semitism she witnessed. Still full of doubt about Palestine's ability to care for young refugees, she took charge of the Youth Aliyah bureau in Palestine. She adopted a plan developed by Chaim Arlosoroff—similar to one Freier had suggested—for housing almost 3,000 children in kibbutzim, boarding schools and children's villages. Once she had a plan, Szold began the arduous task of obtaining visas. The British refused to issue immigration permits for the children unless Szold could prove there were resources to support them for two years. Szold collected enough evidence to obtain the first 350 permits in late 1933. When the first Youth Aliyah children arrived in Palestine on February 19, 1934, Szold met them at the dock in Haifa and greeted each by name, a tradition she maintained with each new wave of young refugees.

As Szold was struggling to obtain visas and arrange housing and education for the children, Hadassah was staging a fight of its own—for independence. In 1933, Hadassah had dissolved its affiliation with the male Federation of American Zionists (FAZ). In 1935, it initiated a controversial struggle for sole control of Youth Aliyah fundraising in the United States. Its desire for autonomy directly challenged World Zionist Congress efforts to eliminate division in the Zionist agenda and competition for funds. A heated battle ensued between Hadassah and organizations like the American Palestine Campaign and the Zionist Organization of America (formerly FAZ). In January 1936, they reached a compromise. As Youth Aliyah's exclusive American agent, Hadassah agreed to focus fundraising efforts on women and credit the United Palestine Appeal with any money it raised.

Hadassah's bid for independence foreshadowed a split between the organization and its founder. Henrietta Szold openly advocated peace between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. In 1936, she wrote, "The fears of the Arabs are not groundless. Our peaceful endeavors in our own behalf are undeniably pressing them to the wall." Most Zionists did not share Szold's compassion for the Arabs whose terrorist attacks against Jews had escalated in the 20 years since the Balfour Declaration. In 1937, she was booed at the World Zionist Conference. "I am not pleading for justice to the Arabs alone," she said. "I am pleading for justice to ourselves, to our principles, the sacred principles for which our martyrs gave their blood."

In 1942, Szold, Judah Magnes and others founded Ihud—Unity—an organization dedicated to planning a bi-national Arab-Jewish state in Palestine. At the same time, American Jews began to renew their support for the Zionist agenda. At the Biltmore Conference in 1942 and the American Jewish Conference in 1943, they demanded the establishment of an independent Jewish state. Heated letters flew back and forth between Hadassah leaders in New York and Szold in Palestine. In the end, Hadassah aligned with the American Jewish agenda, stopping just short of denouncing Szold. In Palestine, Jewish newspapers were more overt, demanding her expulsion from Zionist groups.

In 1917, she had given into similar pressure, putting aside her public support of pacifism. This time, she ignored her critics and focused on her work. As World War II raged, Youth Aliyah children arriving in Palestine were increasingly malnourished, exhausted, and emotionally scarred. She dedicated the remainder of her life to meeting their needs. In 1941, just three years before her death, she established a Children's Bureau through the Vaad Leumi, providing the initial funding with $70,000 from her own savings. Later renamed Mosad Szold, the bureau ensured all children equal access to social and educational services. Although she lived to see a healthy nation emerging out of the third world country of Palestine, Henrietta Szold did not live to see the establishment of the State of Israel. She died in Palestine in 1944.


Dash, Joan. Summoned to Jerusalem: The Life of Henrietta Szold. NY: Harper and Row, 1979.

Geller, Lawrence D. The Henrietta Szold Papers in the Hadassah Archives, 1875–1965. NY: Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, 1982.

Levin, Alexandra, ed. Henrietta Szold and Youth Aliyah: Family Letters, 1934–1944. NY: Herzl Press, 1986.

——. The Szolds of Lombard Street: A Baltimore Family, 1859–1909. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1960.

Levin, Marlin. Balm in Gilead: The Story of Hadassah. NY: Schocken, 1973.

suggested reading:

Fineman, Irving. Woman of Valor: The Story of Henrietta Szold. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1961.

Gidal, Nachum T. Henrietta Szold: The Saga of an American Woman. NY: Gefen, 1996.

Lowenthal, Marvin. Henrietta Szold: Life and Letters. NY: Viking, 1942.

related media:

Kessler, Barry, Curator. "Daughter of Zion: Henrietta Szold, An American Jewish Womanhood." Traveling exhibit. Jewish Historical Society of Maryland. Baltimore, MD, 1995.


The Henrietta Szold Papers, Hadassah Archives, Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, New York City.

Denise D. Meringolo , Curator, Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, Washington, D.C.