‘Jewish Custom Is Very Dear and Sacred to Me’

Henrietta Szold

Lived: December 21, 1860 – February 13, 1945

Why you should know her: A Jewish Zionist leader, Ms. Szold founded Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, the eldest of eight girls, Henrietta Szold was a rabbi’s daughter. After high school, Henrietta taught at a Jewish school, while also teaching the Bible and history to adults. Editing Professor Marcus Jastrow’s Talmudic Dictionary, Henrietta also furthered her own education at Johns Hopkins University and the Peabody Institute.

Henrietta founded the first night school in the United States, where she provided English language lessons and vocational skills to Jewish immigrants. She also worked as the editor of the Jewish Publication Society for more than 23 years, while helping compile the Jewish Encyclopedia. She also took classes at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where the president, Solomon Schechter, allowed her to study with rabbis if she did not seek ordination herself.

Henrietta’s commitment to Zionism grew when she at last visited the Holy Land in 1909. This visit inspired her to found Hadassah in 1912, which she presided over until 1926.

She then made aliyah (immigrated to the Holy Land) herself in 1933. There, she helped run Youth Aliyah, which rescued 30,000 Jewish children from the Nazis.

Szold’s life mission was the health, education, and welfare of the Jewish community of the Holy Land. Her group funded hospitals, a medical school, dental facilities, x-ray clinics, welfare for infants, and soup kitchens. Her reasoning was that such practical programs were necessary for Jewish survival in the years before Israel gained its independence.

Henrietta died before she could see the establishment of the modern state of Israel. She passed away in the same Hadassah Hospital she helped build in the Holy City of Jerusalem. Henrietta was buried in the Mount of Olives, which was cut off from the rest of the Holy City until 1967. When Israel regained the Old City after the Six-Day War, a group of rabbis found that her grave had been paved over by the Jordanians. Her grave was later rebuilt and marked with a new stone marker, one of many commemorations for this woman who played such a big role in preparing the Holy Land for the modern state of Israel.

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