The Hadassah of Henrietta Szold

Other than Moses and Abraham, Hadassah Women's Zionist Organization of America founder Henrietta Szold was the first Jewish leader I learned about.

Henrietta Szold (far right) in 1920 with the other founders of the Hadassah Womens Organization. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Henrietta Szold (far right) in 1920 with the other founders of the Hadassah Womens Organization.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Other than Moses and Abraham, Hadassah Women's Zionist Organization of America founder Henrietta Szold was the first Jewish leader I learned about.
My mother, Anna Birshtein Geffen, owned a seated olivewood camel, “Made in Palestine,” in which you could put liquid ink and write with the old-style pen to your heart’s content. Since it was always on display and I only had seen camels at the Grant Park Zoo in Atlanta, I frequently asked her about the camel.
My mother was a member of Junior Hadassah in Norfolk, Virginia, from 1930 until 1934. The members received a friendly order from Szold, living in Palestine, to raise money for the Hadassah Youth village, Meir Shefayah. Szold had youth aliya in mind and needed a place where she could bring the children and ensure trained personnel took care of them. My mother told me the story of the village, and that the camel reminded her of it.
“Why the camel?” I asked.
“Henrietta Szold sent each member of Junior Hadassah who raised $50 a prize. I knew a lot of people, and I raised $52.”
Today, the camel sits on a shelf in my Jerusalem home, and when I look at it, I remember my mother first, and then Henrietta Szold. Her greatest triumph was undoubtedly the Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem, now in a battle for its survival.
What would Szold have thought? BORN IN Baltimore, Maryland in 1860, just before the election of Abraham Lincoln and the onset of the Civil War, Szold memorized Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address when she was 10 years old, and recited it in her father’s synagogue. A student of languages, she became involved in the immigration of Jews from Europe in 1881 because she could communicate with them. She also set up a school in Baltimore to teach the newcomers English.
In a letter to one of her four sisters, she wrote: “The Russian business so absorbs my thoughts that I have gone back to my early childhood longing to be a man... I am sure that if I were to be, I could mature plans of great benefit to them.”
Raised as a Reform Jew, as her father was a noted Reform rabbi, she was not, at first, the feminist she came to be. She believed that Jewish women were protected by “potent Halacha” dealing with marriage and divorce.
In 1893, she gave a notable speech because it so toed the party line.
“The Jewish mother teaches the children, speeds her husband to the place of worship and instruction, welcomes him when he returns, keeps the house godly and God’s blessings resting upon all these things.”
As a new century arrived and with the death of her father, she moved to New York with her mother.
Aspiring to a better Jewish education, she was accepted by Chancellor Solomon Schecter to be an auditor in the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. At that same time, a program began there for the training of Hebrew school teachers.
The demands of school, translating scholarly books into English and being an active member of the national Zionist administration caused a meltdown, necessitating a change at age 49. She convinced her mother that a visit to Palestine would be good for both of them. In 1909, off they went to the Promised Land.
Szold’s very lengthy essay on the trip in 1909-1910, published in American Jewish Year Book, is a mustread for understanding how the goals of the Hadassah organization – born on February 12, 112 years ago – may have been comprised.
She noted the forward-looking aspects of Palestine, but she also saw “what had come to be regarded widely as the sign of slipshod wastefulness and disorganization.”
“Millions have been poured into the colonies... but the whole system is paralyzed. Heroic remedies are needed,” she added.
As each element in the current Hadassah crisis is revealed, we see signs that over and over again should have been heeded – but were not. The smaller problems bred larger ones, until the debt became overwhelming.
We are aware that considerable funds have been raised by the women of Hadassah for years – the building of the Ein Kerem facility, the renovation of the Mount Scopus center. But all those enormous sums have not been directed where they should have gone. Certain major financial obligations have not been met – especially withholding tax for the government. The more we learn the worse it gets. You can be sure that “heroic remedies are needed. “ In her report, Szold wrote, “I see crisis in sharp relief. There are some real deplorable results in what has been attempted.”
The current Hadassah situation is certainly a crisis of highest proportions.
A large percentage of this city’s population need the excellent medical facilities which Hadassah provides.
The Hadassah organization understands it cannot provide the funds it once did, but the budget of the hospital still requires this infusion – which sadly has disappeared.
We hope Hadassah women’s leadership can be rejuvenated, because they appear a bit frail at this juncture.
As my camel has survived almost 80 years, let us hope the funds will flow and the ink of resourcefulness will raise up Hadassah once more.