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Henrietta Szold - Zionist, Educator (Part 1)

By Rose L. Halprin
There is no need to fictionalize Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah, and least of all is there [a] need for Hadassah to do so. There are still in our midst many who knew her personally, who remember the manner of her speech, the clarity and integrity of her thinking, the one¬ness of her purpose, who sometimes differed with her, but always were elevated and inspired by her idealism and moral stature.

For nearly seventy years (she took her first teaching post at 16) she worked, spoke, wrote on behalf of the things in which she believed.  Because hers was a personality in which contending loyalties did not fight one another nor conflicting fundamental ideas generate constant inner struggle; because she was firmly committed to certain enduring principles which guided her life, it is a most wondrous experience to read her speeches, her articles, her letters, reflecting the harmony of her spirit.

From earliest childhood she was firmly committed to Judaism as a vital pattern of life and to preserving the moral and ethical principles which it embodies. From her father, Rabbi Benjamin Szold, scholar and sage, she received a love of Jewish learning. Her letters reveal both the deep attachment between father and daughter, and the part he played in shaping her fine mind and developing her enduring devotion to the great ethical principles of Judaism.

An observant traditional Jewess herself, she never sought to im¬pose the pattern of her worship upon others. Yet she was militant in expression and in purpose when she said, times without number, that a hollow Judaism - Judaism without knowledge - was not worthy of preservation and that, indeed, it could not long endure in modern society. To those concerned with Jewish survival her first injunction was: "study your heritage and learn it."

On the need for education she was passionate and emphatic. “When we have ceased to be the effective guardians of our treasures, of what use are we in this world?", she asked. "In the case of such a flagrant dereliction of duty, what the twentieth century will have in store for us is not a Ghetto but a grave."

Her concern with young people was as natural and spontaneous as her delight in them. Upon them, too, she enjoined education as the tool for survival: - "Jewish youth must be initiated in the glories of our history and thus learn to know the shortcomings and exigencies of his own time and be ready to do battle with them".

She was deeply concerned with the neglect of education of the Jewish girl. She saw in this neglect the weakening of Jewish tradition
in the home. To Hadassah she addressed this appeal: "The women must make themselves responsible for Zionism among the young, but we ourselves are not yet ready to educate - we must first educate ourselves." Thus the education of the Jewish woman and a Jewishly educated youth became for her the touchstone for the preservation of Jewish family life through Jewish content in the home.

Her faith in Jewish values led her naturally to Zionism. To come to its espousal, she had no need of a great intellectual exercise nor of any devastating personal emotional experience as a Jewess. In her own words - simple and direct - we read her Zionist credo: ¬

"The Jew has a historic claim on Palestine as Eretz Israel and he has validated the claim by the volume and solidity of its achieve¬ment."

"After my trip to Palestine (in 1909) I am more than ever con¬vinced that our only salvation lies that way (i.e. Zionism). The only thing I admit is that I now think the Zionist ideal more diffi¬cult of realization than ever I did before - I am more than ever convinced that if not Zionism, then nothing - then extinction for the Jew."

"We need Zionism as much as those Jews do who need a physical home."

"In one respect I see more clearly than ever, that is in respect to Zionism. The anomalous position of the Jew everywhere, the
bravery of the Jews who are serving in all the armies (in the first World War) means to me that the Jew and his Judaism can be perpetuated only by their repatriation in the land of the fathers."

After a tour of Texas she confided to friends: "My Jewish ex¬periences have made a hardened Zionist of me. If I had not been a Zionist before, I should have become one in Texas. We in New York have no conception of the distinction between the Jew and Judaism. Zionism is the only anchor in sight. Here is the problem in its nakedness. How is it to be solved? I say through Zionism. What other solution is offered?"

Intertwined with her Judaism and Zionism was her love of America, her delight with its physical richness and beauty, her deep and abiding faith in its potential greatness as a nation. If she talked often during the years she lived in Palestine about the autumn leaves and their magnificent colors, if she longed to be buried in Baltimore where she was born, it was an expression of her love of America, its land and its legacy, its hope and its promise.

Her views on education encompassed both the Judaic and the American. One cannot but be amazed and impressed to find her comments on educational problems as fresh today as they were nearly a century ago. I choose almost at random:

"The greatest obstacle in the way of a successful realization of these suggestions is to be sought in the size of our classes … ¬They are a crying evil of our times synonymous with intellectual ruin to teacher and pupil, degrading both to automatons … In what striking contrasts is the custom that obtained in Palestine, as early as two centuries B.C.E., namely that any community that allowed a teacher to teach a class more numerous than 25, without granting him an assistant was to be branded and degraded.”

“ … Life in the 20th century will not be easy to live, it will call for high courage to face the truth, steadiness in action, steadfast opinions and unflinching purposes. The world will stand in need of a host of noble, perfect men, planned and executed according to the models that previous ages have shown only as isolated specimens of humanity, upon their pinnacles and in their foremost ranks. Such are our pupils to be, such the work we have to accom¬plish in order to prepare them for a struggle from which, with cer¬tainty it can be said, they will not be spared.”

“The whole question of a sound education resolves itself into one of method; not what but how to study, not courses but methods of study."

It was her zeal for education that led her to membership in a small group of women organized for Jewish studies and from that group to the establishment of Hadassah - an achievement which she, as we who
seek to walk in her footsteps, consider one of her greatest and most enduring achievements.

To the leadership of Hadassah, organized by her in March 1912, she preached a double function in accordance with her dual reading of Jewish history: In the United States, the fostering of Jewish educa¬tion; in Palestine, the fulfillment of a Zionist dream of Israel reborn and the responsibility for certain areas of practical work. There were changing emphases on these tasks. Sometimes, the need in Palestine made her ask Hadassah for increased efforts in its Palestine program; other times, however, she would urge Hadassah to intensify its Zionist program in the United States. In reaction to her appraisals there were occasionally sharp differences of opinion. These she expected. Indeed, she would have been distressed had they found no expression out of false deference to her.

Appearing before the Hadassah Convention in 1931, Miss Szold suggested such a change of emphasis and urged upon Hadassah the strengthening of its Zionist work on the American scene. She met re¬sentment. Perhaps Hadassah was right at that time. Yet, today, reading her rationalization, one realizes with a start that the same question once again faces the Zionist movement; that she was perhaps less wrong than premature.

Writing immediately upon her departure from the United States she had this to say in justification of her point of view: "What I believe flows from my central conception of Zionism; that a center must be built in Zion and that a center implies a periphery, the Diaspora, Jewishly receptive -- giving materially, receiving spiritual values. Palestine plus Diaspora equals Zionism. Hadassah had from the start assumed a double task, a Palestine purpose and an American Zionist purpose. I feel that the time has come to stress the latter more than hitherto, through the Jewish and political education of its members."

Firm in her own convictions, she realized that personal commit¬ment can only flow from free personal choice. When Junior Hadassah
sought her guidance, she warned that she could only state the facts and they must reach their own conclusions. She applauded young people's desire for independence, granted them the right to seek their own road to their chosen destination. "The successive generations”, she said, “have qualities and methods other than those of the former generations."

She was 52 years old when she organized Hadassah which will be celebrating its 50th birthday in 1962. She shaped its form and molded its purpose as a Zionist organization. Turning the pages, we can trace through five decades of work the principles which she lay down and to which Hadassah, grown in strength and numbers, adheres, not in adula¬tion, but because these were the very foundation stones of the structure which she helped to build.

From the beginning, contributions to Hadassah were used only for its activities in Palestine. Even after the organization had grown mightily and the mere mailing of a letter to its large constituency be¬came a strain on the budget, this principle was maintained: - member¬ship dues for administration; 100% of the funds raised from non-members for work in Israel. This principle of separation of funds was part of Miss Szold's concept of membership; membership was Zionist and its dues token of its Zionist credo. Membership was acceptance of a faith realizable, of a hope redeemable. Membership must pay for Zionist work as a token of that faith and hope. In the 1930s a sharp rise in cost made a change necessary. Reluctantly and only after much deliberation did the Hadassah Conventions authorize a 3% to 4% deduction from contri¬butions for administration.

Even in those early days it was sometimes suggested, as it still is, that perhaps it would be easier were we to drop the word "Zionist." Miss Szold would not compromise, and rejected any slurring over of concept and of purpose. To rally American Jewish women around Zionism, to support its dual purpose here and in Palestine, was her avowed and unflinching aim. Above all else she sought to develop and educate leadership through intensive study, to lead membership to an understanding of Zionism. She called for a Zionism which was at once spiritual, physical and political. "Clearly, rehabilitating a nation is not a pastime, it is a task, a heavy task, a holy task." "Understand Zionist aims", she said. "In other lands the Jew can perhaps put a few strokes into the background of the picture, but in Palestine he is painting the whole background."

Part 1 of  “Henrietta Szold: Zionist, Educator”, by Rose L. Halprin, a booklet Published by Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Inc., 1960

Date: 2/2/2011 12:00:00 AM

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