Henrietta Szold (1860-1945)

An early Jewish Voice for Women’s Rights

Henrietta Szold was born in 1860, one of eight daughters of a Baltimore rabbi and his wife. She became a passionate student of Judaism, and was even allowed to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary, only open to men at that time. She became an early Jewish voice for women’s rights.

Szold founded Hadassah Women, the largest Jewish organization in the U.S. As a Zionist organization Hadassah was involved in the 1930s in saving Jewish youth from Germany and then later from across Europe. About 22,000 Jewish children and youth were rescued from the Nazis through Hadassah’s work, a legacy built upon the foundation of Szold’s advocacy and activism.

From Hadassah’s inception, Szold opposed discrimination and she voiced this important value in a prophetic way. This became a complex issue as Hadassah began to engage in healthcare in Palestine.

During and following World War I, American Jews organized the American Zionist Medical Unit to deal with some of the suffering of Jews in Palestine. The huge problems and organizational chaos led Szold to come to Palestine in 1920 to take over the organization. She established the Hadassah Medical Organization to care for women and children. She insisted that the organization work with Arabs, Muslim and Christian, as well as Jews, providing the same care to all people with the best medical technology possible.

Following her model, the organization served people of all origins and religions equally and cooperatively. The Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, which grew out of the original organization that Szold headed, is now the premier medical institution in Israel and the entire Middle East.

Szold envisioned nondiscriminatory health care as providing a bond between Jews and Arabs for building common community – but this has not been easy amid the volatile politics and frequent violence in the region. In 1948, before the state of Israel was established, 77 Jewish doctors and nurses from the hospital were killed by Arab soldiers.

Nevertheless, Hadassah has continued to practice cooperation, coexistence and nondiscrimination even as Hadassah treats more victims of on-going
chapter eleven violence than any other medical center. Szold’s work has continued beyond her death through the staff of Hadassah, resulting in a nomination of the Hadassah Medical Organization for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.

Through the most difficult times, the cooperative context of Hadassah’s healthcare has provided opportunities for creating bridges of communication and initiatives for peace.