Born in 1860 to a rabbinic family that had left its native Hungary and settled in Baltimore, Henrietta Szold is best known today as the founder of the women’s Zionist organization Hadassah. She was also a pioneering journalist, accomplished editor and translator, and one of the leading Jewish philanthropists of both the U.S. and the Land of Israel. Reviewing Dvora Hacohen’s biography of Szold, recently translated from Hebrew into English, Jenna Weissman Joselit describes its subject as an “avid Zionist at a time when committed American Zionists were few and far between,” and credits Hadassah with “transform[ing] Zionism from a cause into a calling.”
Szold’s adaptability, her nimble genius, might well be credited to her having had an early start. She began her professional career at the age of seventeen while a cub reporter for the Jewish Messenger, a New York weekly. Going by the name of Sulamith, she happened to be on the scene and at the table in July 1883 when the drama of the “Trefa Banquet” unfolded in Cincinnati. “There was no regard paid to our dietary laws,” the kosher-keeping eyewitness related of the celebratory communal dinner marking the graduation of the very first class of Reform rabbis in the United States. Worse still, when she and several of her tablemates refrained from eating the forbidden bill of fare, awash in seafood, “We were . . . stared at as if we were mummies or fossil remains.”
By 1920, when Szold relocated to Mandatory Palestine, she had numerous accomplishments under her belt, but was about to begin the most impressive part of her career:
At the age when most of us are just about to fold our tents, Szold pitched hers—and in the Holy Land, no less. With a seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy that belied her years, she gave her all—and then some—to improving the well-being of the Yishuv’s residents in the years following the Great War. Forming the “American Daughters of Zion, Nurses Settlement” in Jerusalem, a neighborhood clinic that took its cue from the Henry Street Settlement in New York, and establishing the Hadassah Medical Organization, replete with a nursing school, ambulances, and the latest technology, including X-ray machines, she did battle with the many diseases and ineffectual Old World remedies that afflicted the local population.
Szold also served on the Yishuv’s Jewish National Council, where she juggled the demanding education and health portfolios. And then, in what would turn out to be the apex of her career, she created the Youth Aliyah organization in response to the worsening crisis in Europe, rescuing thousands of Jewish children, many of them soon to be orphans, by resettling them in specially designed settlements.