Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, was founded by Henrietta Szold in 1912.
Henrietta Szold: Woman of Vision
Like others of her generation, Henrietta's existence was shaped—and framed—by war. Born in 1860, she entered the world on the eve of the Civil War. Eighty-five years later, in February of 1945, in the waning days of World War II—she died.
Perhaps it was this shadow of history that colored her life—or perhaps it was simply her God-given nature. But either way, Henrietta Szold was born a fighter.
She dedicated her life to fighting ignorance, injustice, anti-Semitism, and disease.
She never stopped fighting the fears and hatreds that divide people and nations.
She fought with all her strength to build a better world.
How did an American woman of her time learn such fearless passion and commitment?
Her parents were largely responsible, raising their child—in Baltimore, Maryland—with unusually enlightened attitudes and values.
Henrietta's father, a rabbi, believed there was nothing a man could do that a woman couldn't do as well. He and his wife, Henrietta's mother, saw to it that their daughter was educated by experience as well as by books.
But it was Henrietta who put her education to the test. Her confidence, ability, and drive landed her a position as the first female editor of the Jewish Publication Society—then the premiere publisher of Jewish liturgical and secular texts.
Some time after, Henrietta enrolled in the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the training ground for the conservative rabbinate. Although women rabbis are commonplace today, in the early 1900s such a thing was unheard of. While the Seminary allowed her to take classes, it was on the condition that she promised not to pursue the rabbinate.
So Henrietta pursued other worthy things—pursuits that would transform people's lives for the better, and help repair the world.
For example, while living in Baltimore, Henrietta saw the suffering of Jewish immigrants who came to this country from Russia and Eastern Europe. She also witnessed the advantages enjoyed by those immigrants who had learned to speak correct and serviceable English. Henrietta decided to help by organizing English language and American citizenship night classes. Her model of nighttime ESL schools continues to this day.
The Founding of Hadassah
Fast-forward to 1909, when Henrietta and her mother took a trip to pre-state Israel. There they witnessed the starvation and disease that afflicted the people of the region.
It was a seminal moment in Henrietta's life. Upon her return to the U.S., she soon founded Hadassah, a volunteer women's organization with the biblical mission of Aruhat Bat Ami: the Healing of the Daughter of my People.
Her new organization's first mission was to send two nurses to Palestine to provide pasteurized milk to infants and new mothers, and to eradicate trachoma, an easily cured eye disease, that was robbing thousands of sight.
By 1918, Hadassah had sent an entire medical unit, composed of 45 doctors, nurses, dentists and sanitary workers, to bring American-style medical care to serve all, regardless of race, creed, or ethnicity.
From these early efforts developed the beginning of the Israeli healthcare system, which today includes some of the world's leading research and treatment hospitals, and schools of medicine and nursing.
Of course, as history marches on, so does human tragedy. By the mid-1930s, it had become clear—to those who chose to see clearly—that Jewish children needed to be saved from a Europe that was rapidly darkening with anti-Semitic and Nazi threats and actions.
Joining with a German colleague, Henrietta Szold helped organize the rescue of thousands such children, bringing them to safety in Palestine. This remnant of saved European Jewry became one of the foundations of the modern state of Israel, and many of her "children" and their children survive to this day.
Today at 100 years old, with 300,000 members, Hadassah is the largest Jewish organization in America, and one of the largest women's volunteer organizations in the world.
As early as 1942, the U.S. State Department named Hadassah as one of the five largest contributors to overseas relief. During World War II, Hadassah chapters around the country sold a total of $200 million in war bonds. For our efforts, we were rewarded with 100 U.S. Air Force bombers, each bearing the name of a Hadassah chapter.
Since our inception we've taken firm advocacy positions on First Amendment issues, public health, support of Israel, and a vast array of social concerns, including immigration and voting rights.
In recent years we've spoken out passionately in favor of federal and state funding for stem cell research, and have advocated strongly for legislation that supports medical privacy and freedom from genetic discrimination by insurance companies and employers.
With members in every U.S. Congressional district, we are a powerful grassroots voice for change.
Hadassah founded, owns and supports two world-class medical centers in greater Jerusalem, and are rapidly expanding their campuses and facilities. We're concluding a $210 million capital campaign for the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Tower at Hadassah Medical Center, Ein Kerem, Jerusalem.
Over the years, we have expanded our Israeli projects to include Hadassah Academic College, one of Israel's top-ranked smaller colleges…three Hadassah Youth Aliyah villages, where we house, feed, educate and nurture young immigrants and Israel's underprivileged youth…and we run Israel's largest touring and residency program for American Jewish youth through Young Judaea, our Zionist youth movement.
We also support major reforestation and water conservation programs to protect Israel's precious natural resources.
All this—and so much more—started with the vision of one woman: Henrietta Szold.
Two small details sum up who Henrietta was.
First, the words she often repeated—and actively chose to live by—were: "Dare to dream…and when you dream, dream big."
Late in her life, a sculptor was commissioned to create her likeness. When he asked her how she wished to be portrayed, she answered, "Make my eyes look to the future."
As we approach our Hadassah centennial Henrietta Szold's legacy of commitment and caring and improving the world through practical deeds lives on in the work of the hundreds of thousands of Hadassah women today.