In the Footsteps of Heroines: After Esther, Jessie, Alice and Julie

March 6, 2023

In the Footsteps of Heroines: After Esther, Jessie, Alice and Julie

By Rhoda Smolow & Naomi Adler

Advancing History Alongside Like-Minded Women
This March, as we celebrate Women's History Month, we mark three significant moments (one for each corner of our hamantaschen): Hadassah Shabbat Zachor, Purim and International Women's Day.

Lifting up the heroines of our history is a priority during Women's History Month. This year, we hope you'll join us in reflecting on the many ways they relied on one another to make the biggest impact possible. Just as we — as Hadassah volunteer and professional leaders — do every day.

Last Shabbat, synagogues around the country marked our 10th Hadassah Shabbat Zachor, celebrating our founding in 1912 and close ties to Purim and Queen Esther (Hadassah in Hebrew), who inspired Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold as a "woman of action."

What Would Alice Do?
Among historically recognized heroines, Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold stands tall, with schools and streets named in her honor and, more recently, a much-deserved spot on the Forward Newspaper's "Forward 125: The American Jews who shaped our world" list.

But Szold didn't lead alone, and her long-lasting, transformative effect in Israel rests partly on the shoulders of the Hadassah friends who shared her passion for Jewish life and Zionism, her intellectual rigor and her unwavering commitment to public service.

Their emotional support and practical advice (on dealing with orphans, for example, as she helped build up our Youth Aliyah Villages) helped steady Szold when she found herself frustrated by mountains of red tape. Consider this excerpt from the American Jewish Year Book:

"How often," Henrietta Szold wrote in November 1940, "when I was faced by a (for me) momentous decision, I found myself asking how Alice would approach the solution of my problem, how she would dissect and analyze it, how she would relate it ... to the vital things of existence." ... Henrietta Szold and Alice Seligsberg, working with Nellie Straus and Jessie Sampter, formed the intellectual and ethical foundation stone upon which Hadassah has stood.

Upbuilding: A Leader in Her Own Right
A trailblazer in the field of social work, Alice Seligsberg (1873-1940) was known as a pioneering child welfare advocate and passionate Zionist. She played a major role in sending the first group of Hadassah nurses to Palestine. From 1921 to 1923, she formally led Hadassah as national president, and for many years served as executive director of the Jewish Children's Clearing Bureau of New York.

For Seligsberg, "Our ultimate task — the Zionist hope — however, is the upbuilding of the Jewish Homeland as a socially just and creative community ... in which every person may develop to the utmost of his power."

An Educator and So Much More
A New York-born poet and writer, Jessie Sampter (1883-1938) was a passionate Zionist who helped found kibbutzim and became one of Israel's first modern poets and an outspoken advocate for Jewish-Arab peace. A confidante of Szold — her mentor — Sampter organized and directed Hadassah's School of Zionism, educating American audiences about Zionism, including with her 1915 "A Course on Zionism" and an expanded version in 1933 that featured an introduction by Albert Einstein. Thanks to Sarah Imhoff's timely new biography, "The Lives of Jessie Sampter: Queer, Disabled, Zionist" (Duke University Press, 2022), she's gaining greater recognition. Today, Hadassah continues to educate and create bold spaces to discuss Zionism.

Building Collaborations of Healing
Today, we find a heroine in Julie Benbenishty, trauma nurse coordinator at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem. Named recently as the World Federation of Critical Care Nurses' newest ambassador, Benbenishty will be in New York right around International Women's Day to speak — in coordination with the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) — about her work with Nurses of the Middle East, which she founded with Naela Hayek, an Arab-Israeli nurse who leads Hadassah’s intensive care units.

Celebrating Collaboration and Each Other
We are so grateful to all who make Hadassah healing possible. I hope this March, you'll share this message of hope as we celebrate what like-minded women can and will achieve together.