One of eight daughters of a Baltimore rabbi, Henrietta Szold was a passionate and accomplished student of Judaism. She even won permission to study Jewish texts at the then male-only Jewish Theological Seminary, on condition that she never agitate to be granted rabbinic ordination. Later, she translated Heinrich Graetz’s monumental multivolume History of the Jews from German into English
Szold was, in certain respects, a forerunner of Jewish women’s liberation. When her mother died in 1916, a close male friend, Haym Peretz, volunteered to say the Mourner’s Kaddish for the dead woman. Szold graciously refused the offer. “I believe,” she wrote him, “that the elimination of women from such duties was never intended by our law and custom-women were freed from positive duties when they could not perform them [because of family responsibilities] but not when they could. It was never intended that, if they could perform them, their performance of them should not be considered as valuable and valid as when one of the male sex performed them.”
Szold’s outstanding contribution to Jewish life was the creation of the largest Jewish organization in American history, Hadassah Women. Although Zionist, Hadassah particularly involved itself in meeting the health needs of both Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Today, the foremost hospital in Israel and the entire Middle East is the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Szold insisted that the most up-to-date medical treatment be extended to the Arabs of Palestine as well as to the Jews, and Hadassah played a major role in lowering Arab infant mortality. The Hadassah spirit of volunteerism and nondiscrimination was unfortunately rejected by the Arab leadership, which may have feared that its example would lessen hatred between Jews and Arabs. In early 1948, just before the State of Israel was declared, Arab troops ambushed and murdered seventy-seven Jewish doctors and nurses from Hadassah Hospital.
During the 1930s, Szold involved Hadassah in a program to rescue Jewish youth from Germany, and later from all of Europe. It is estimated that the program she created, “Youth Aliyah,” saved some 22,000 Jewish children from Hitler’s concentration camps.
The personal tragedy of Szold’s life was that she never married; this woman, whose life was devoted to saving the lives of children, never had children of her own. While in her forties, she did fall passionately in love with the great Talmud scholar Louis Ginzberg. He was fifteen years her junior, and returned her feelings only platonically. Shortly after their relationship ended, she wrote: “Today it is four weeks since my only real happiness was killed.” Many years later, she confided to a friend: “I would exchange everything for one child of my own.”
To this day Henrietta Szold is regarded as one of the genuine heroic figures of American-Jewish history, a scholarly woman, a passionately committed Jew and a person who saved many thousands of lives.
The organization she founded, Hadassah, has as of 1990 about 350,000 members, and is the largest Jewish organization in the United States.