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Hadassah “will not take up much of your time”: Henrietta Szold’s unrealized promise to Alice Seligsberg in 1912

News about Henrietta Szold on her 150th birthday
By Susan Woodland

For Hadassah’s 25th anniversary in 1937, the Hadassah Newsletter printed a series of articles by Alice L. Seligsberg entitled, “Chronicle of Hadassah”, covering in detail the first few years of the organization.

Alice was selected to write this history for many reasons, including the fact that she had been a close friend of Henrietta Szold’s for many years, had been a founding member of Hadassah, and had remained involved with Hadassah’s administration at the highest level. 

As Alice recalled in her 1937 article, “My first recollection associated with Hadassah is a telephone call from Miss Szold.  I cannot date it accurately.  ‘Alice, I am calling a small meeting of Zionist women, with the idea in mind of taking up some piece of practical work for Palestine.  I want you to be in on this.  It will not take up much of your time.’ ”

Alice Seligsberg, circa 1920

According to another founding member, Gertrude Rosenblatt, Alice attended a planning meeting on February 10th, so this call must have been in early February, 1912.  It appears that Alice was devoid of cynicism – she does not editorialize on “It will not take up much of your time” which is surprising, knowing as we do now that this call changed her life.  Although she enjoyed an influential career in social work even after 1912, dating from the first Hadassah meeting in 1912 Alice’s life was enmeshed with the development of Hadassah.

Alice had graduated from Barnard College in 1895, and became a social worker.  According to a profile after Alice’s death by Rose G. Jacobs and published in the American Jewish Year Book (1941-1942), from the time of her graduation from Barnard she worked with poor immigrant girls in New York City running girls’ clubs, and later for the Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Society (HSGS).  Around the time that Alice became involved with Hadassah, she became president of Fellowship House, the “boarding-out department” of HSGS.  According to Herman Block, who spoke at Alice’s funeral, “The adoption of [the Fellowship House] program … completely changed the course of Jewish child-care in New York and throughout the country.” 

Alice’s name first appears in the Hadassah Archives in letters from Henrietta Szold, during Henrietta’s first trip to Palestine in 1909-1910.  [These letters have been explored at length in articles in “What’s New, What’s Hot”, 2009-2010, which may be found on Hadassah’s intranet.]  It was in one of these letters that Henrietta Szold wrote to Alice Seligsberg, “When I return … I shall tell you much about Palestine and Zionism and the Jews.  Briefly now only this – the prophecy of many of my friends that Palestine would unmake my Zionism has not been verified.  I am the same Zionist I was, in fact, I am more than ever convinced that our only salvation lies that way.  The only thing I admit is that I now think Zionism an ideal more difficult of realization than ever I did before, both on account of the Jews themselves and on account of … world conditions.”  It seems that Henrietta Szold and the founding members of Hadassah, many of whom had also been to Palestine, began this piece of practical Zionism with their eyes wide open.

According to Rose Jacobs, “In Hadassah, with its opportunities for practical expression, [Alice] found the channel for making her ideas live.  In her work for Hadassah she became the ally and associate of one to whom she owed an inestimable spiritual debt – Henrietta Szold.”

On March 7th, 1912 Alice was elected to Hadassah’s first board of directors, one of 21 women elected that evening.  Even as Alice continued to run Fellowship House, she became more and more involved with Hadassah.  When in 1916 Hadassah was asked to put together a medical unit for Palestine with other American Zionist organizations, Henrietta Szold took charge; and when the Unit was ready to sail in the summer of 1918 and found itself without an administrative head, Henrietta turned to Alice. 

Members of Hadassah’s Central Committee with the nurses of the American Zionist Medical Unit,
before sailing in June 1918.  Alice Seligsberg, Front Row, 2nd from right.  Henrietta Szold,
Front Row, at right.

Alice took leave of Fellowship House and sailed with the American Zionist Medical Unit, according to Rose Jacobs, “in charge of the personnel and of the execution of the entire venture … [and] laid the foundations of a country-wide medical service which developed into the Hadassah Medical Organization.”  This was of course a huge collaborative effort on the part of all Hadassah members.  And it was the friendship and working relationship shared by Henrietta Szold and Alice Seligsberg that gave Hadassah’s first project a successful start.


Images courtesy of the Hadassah Archives.  For more information, please contact Susan Woodland, Hadassah Archives Director, swoodland@hadassah.org

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