Standing on Henrietta Szold’s Shoulders

Opinion

By Shuly Rubin Schwartz

Published December 15, 2010, issue of December 24, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

One of Henrietta Szold’s earliest memories was being lifted on her father’s shoulders to glimpse the funeral cortege of Abraham Lincoln. Today we stand on her shoulders and admire the great American Jewish icon she became.

Best known as the founder of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization, Szold continues to inspire 150 years after her birth, on December 21, 1860. At a time when independent, Jewishly learned women were a rarity, Szold stood in a class by herself by virtue of her erudition, vision and leadership. She modeled a life that integrated her passionate commitments to the Jewish people, to American society and to universal values of justice, and equality — the kinds of commitments we still struggle to balance today.

Courtesy of Hadassah

The oldest of eight daughters, Szold graduated at the top of her high school class in Baltimore, while learning biblical and rabbinic texts as well as several languages from her father, Rabbi Benjamin Szold. She extended her personal passion for learning to help others acquire the skills necessary to succeed in America.

Szold founded a night school to help new Russian Jewish immigrants learn English and citizenship. By 1898, more than 5,000 Jewish and non-Jewish immigrants had attended. The school was so successful that it became a national model. Years later, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia honored Szold’s accomplishments by noting: “I would not be receiving you today as mayor of the City of New York but for the work that you did 50 years ago. Had it not been for those evening classes through which my parents were Americanized we would be facing today a new kind of slavery, an industrial slavery.”

In 1902, Szold set her sights on advanced Jewish studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary, but its rabbinical school was open only to men. Szold implored the seminary’s president, Solomon Schechter, to allow her to take classes, which he did with the proviso that she not seek ordination. Szold dazzled both faculty and students with her intellect. One student described her as “the earliest Jewish woman in America to be known as a savant.”

Szold’s intellect, though, was only one factor that set her apart from her peers. She also demonstrated remarkable inspirational and organizational gifts. After a trip to Palestine opened her eyes to the vast challenges faced by the Jewish community there, Szold founded Hadassah in 1912. She channeled Hadassah’s efforts toward providing medical care in the Yishuv for both Jewish and Arab patients and later played a key leadership role in Youth Aliyah, the program that rescued thousands of children from Nazism and integrated them into new lives in Palestine.

Szold was equally committed to deepening Hadassah women’s knowledge of both Zionism and Judaism, and she thus encouraged the proliferation of study groups, lectures and other such gatherings. Wildly successful, Hadassah grew to become the largest Zionist organization in the United States and one of the largest women’s volunteer organizations in the world.

Though she moved to Palestine in 1920, Szold continued to exert a profound influence on American Jewish women, exemplifying how much an educated, motivated and determined person — much less a woman — could accomplish. As Sophia Ruskay, one of her colleagues, put it, Szold “electrified everybody… it was the humanity and the knowledge…. Nothing was ever said about women’s rights but we had the feeling she was living women’s rights.” Thanks to Szold, American Jewish women began to imagine such lives for themselves, and her example encouraged generations of women to follow their own honorable passions in both volunteer and professional leadership roles.

Nowhere is Szold’s principled stance that women should be full participants in Jewish life more deeply illustrated than in her response to a dear male friend’s offer to recite Kaddish on Szold’s behalf when her mother died. “The elimination of women from such duties was never intended by our law and custom. Women were freed from positive duties when they could not perform them but not when they could…,” Szold replied. “The Kaddish means to me that the survivor publicly and markedly manifests his wish and intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community, which his parent had…. You can do that for the generations of your family, I must do that for the generations of my family.”

Yet for all her pathbreaking and much-admired accomplishments, Szold herself suffered from an acute awareness of all that she lacked in life. From her diaries and letters, we learn of her life-long personal heartache because she never married, had no children and gave up being in close geographic proximity to her family when she moved to Palestine. Her struggles remain poignant for many women striving to find the elusive balance between their work and their personal lives.

In honoring the memory of Szold — who passed away in her apartment on the grounds of Jerusalem’s Henrietta Szold-Hadassah School of Nursing in 1945 — we must also acknowledge continuing challenges, areas where her life’s work has not yet been finished. Despite the progress we have made, women’s advancement often remains limited by glass ceilings in status, pay and recognition in Jewish organizations. Moreover, we continue to struggle to achieve the goal of a Jewishly literate society for both women and men in America, and equal treatment of Arab citizens still eludes the State of Israel.

Thankfully, we are blessed to be able to stand on the shoulders of this giant, as we focus our gaze on completing her noble work.

Shuly Rubin Schwartz is the Irving Lehrman Research Associate Professor of American Jewish History and the Walter and Sarah Schlesinger Dean of Graduate and Undergraduate Studies at The Jewish Theological Seminary.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.