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.
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.