Henrietta Szold Finds Her Voice by Karen Webber Gilat
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
On Purim 1909, Ruth Henrietta Szold and her mother Sophie set sail from New York to Europe, with an add-on trip to Palestine. Of course she did not follow the accustomed route nor standard itinerary for Palestine. Instead, they trekked by horse and cart through agricultural settlements in the Galilee and then into Jerusalem where they were struck by the deplorable conditions of Muslim, Christian and Jewish inhabitants.
Her mother’s prophetic statement, “This is what your group ought to do…you should do practical work in Palestine.” stuck with her. Incensed and invigorated, she returned to New York City with a new sense of purpose.
Szold immersed herself in Zionist activities. She spoke passionately to audiences of Jewish women about the extraordinary challenges facing pioneers in Palestine. The apartment she shared with her mother became a social and intellectual gathering place.
On a February night in 1912, Henrietta Szold gathered 38 women at Temple Emanu-El in New York City. By the end of the meeting, these women became the original ‘Daughters of Zion’. A humble beginning for an organization known throughout the world today as ‘Hadassah’.
Szold was immediately and unanimously elected its first president.
For much of her life, Szold was content behind the scenes as a writer, student, translator and editor. But an eldest daughter she was always setting an extra place at the table, welcoming someone into her midst. She gave new life to the phrase ‘welcome the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Her own parents had been immigrants who came to the United States from Hungary when her father was offered the post of rabbi at Oheb Shalom in Baltimore, Maryland. The first time she officially welcomed strangers into her world she was still a teenager. In the 1870’s, there was a wave of Russian immigrants who landed in Baltimore. These intellectual, passionate Russian Jews drew her in. They convinced her that the Jewish people could have a brilliant future in Palestine. In 1896, she published a paper outlining her Zionist views. Theodore Herzl’s paper would appear a month later.
She finally moved to Palestine in 1929, 20 years after that initial trip that had altered the course of her life. There she was able to enjoy the fruits of her labor. Hadassah grew from an emergency medical team of 2 american nurses in 1913 to a vast health system dedicated to meeting the needs of the entire country by 1948. Her voice grew stronger and stronger. She became a public figure as evidenced by her picture on a 5 shekel note (sadly no longer in use.)
She continued to work with immigrants settling in Palestine. In 1933, she received a call from activists in Germany saying that the situation for Jews was deteriorating rapidly and they needed to relocate thousands of children in a Youth Aliyah. She worked against the clock to secure passports and visas. She personally welcomed as many transports into the country as she could.
Working tirelessly into into her 80’s, she had no biological children of her own. Instead she became a mother of the Jewish people, a symbol of the Zionist dream. From teacher to activist, scholar to advocate, Henrietta Szold has altered the course of Modern Jewish History.
Karen Webber Gilat is a cantor, a teaching artist and chaplain with JSSA (Jewish Social Service Agency). She is the founder of WING&PRAYER which prepares unique learners for Bar and Bat Mitzvah.