Why is it that when a woman runs for an office or does something remarkable – so very often the first thing people say is “look at her hair” or “ WHAT is she wearing!” Well, there is a woman whose photos adorn the halls of the volunteer organization where I volunteer. And because she is the founder of the organization – there are lots of photos in the office and in books about the history of the organization. The organization is Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The woman, the founder, is Henrietta Szold (1860-1945).
When I look at her photos, I don’t focus on her hair, which changed little over the decades of her work. I don’t look at the black pocketbook she often carried which seems not to have changed over the decades of her work. I don’t think about her shoes, which were sturdy and usually black. Nope – when I look at Miss Henrietta Szold’s photo – the first thing I think of “look at how strong she is, look at the determination and purpose in her eyes, look at what those eyes have seen and those hands have touched.” The rest – unimportant and anecdotal.
As we are commemorating Women’s History and Women’s Empowerment Month in March, it’s very appropriate to tell you that even before Henrietta started Hadassah in a New York City synagogue in 1912 with a study group, she had, in her young life, already broken gender barriers and established institutions. Henrietta started the first night school for immigrants in the US and she studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary in an era when the idea of a female rabbi was unthinkable. An empowered woman – look no further – absolutely.
When Henrietta‘s eyes first saw the disease and living conditions of the Jews in pre-state Israel on a trip with her mother in 1911, her mission of practical Zionism and her purpose were born. When you read her letters looking for funding or in subsequent years, letters between her and the nurses she sent over to provide pasteurized milk to babies and new moms, and to set up public health stations in Jerusalem to fight off the flies on the eyes of children suffering from trachoma, her words are full of determination and, excuse the old fashioned word – gumption. This woman had moxie, this woman had chutzpah, this woman had guts. And thank G-d she did. Because she and her women’s organization built the State of Israel. Hadassah created the medical infrastructure of Palestine and continues to do so today in Israel, a mere 108 years later. When there is purpose to what you are committed to and that purpose is accompanied by action – there can be longevity. How about an organization that looks forward to the next 100 years? How about volunteers that are active for decades?
They say the proof is in the pudding, that you can judge something only once you have used or experienced it. So: Been there. Done that. Doing it.
I’ve been a life member of Hadassah for 54 years, worked in just about every capacity and position at every possible level of the organization. I have gone to Israel so many times but when I juxtapose the memories of my first visit in 1966 with my most recent visit in 2018, WOW, the differences are staggering. Close to the top of the list are the ongoing changes at Hadassah Hospitals and Youth Villages. In the early years, beginning in 1913 when Henrietta sent over the first two nurses, Hadassah Hospitals and Clinics covered the map and over the years. Hadassah and the Hadassah Medical Organization (HMO) created many “firsts” — the first medical school, dental school, nursing school, cancer institute, children’s hospice, ambulatory surgery center, ER unit for premature babies, and trauma treatment center in Israel.
Today the two hills of healing stand at opposite ends of Jerusalem – Mt. Scopus (opened in 1939, closed in 1948, reopened in 1975) and the Ein Kerem campus, a tertiary care facility, built in 1961 as Ben Gurion told Hadassah to build in the southwest outskirts of Jerusalem and the city would grow out to it. Which is just what happened. Today, a light rail and bus bring people from all over the area to the hospital. In 2012, the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Hospital Tower opened adding 500 beds and 20 operating theaters. In 2020, Hadassah is re-imagining and re-energizing the campus with its 360 Degrees of Healing Campaign.
Hadassah Hospitals were first in Israel with heart, liver, lung and bone marrow transplants, computer-guided hip replacement (first in the world), macular degeneration clinical trial using embryonic stem cells to repair vision (second in the world) and bone marrow registry for Arabs (only one in the world). Hadassah Medical Organization (HMO) triage procedures and surgical techniques developed by Hadassah doctors were used following the Boston Marathon bombing. HMO doctors and nurses have been first responders in the Philippines, Haiti, Indonesia and Thailand in the wake of natural disasters. Hadassah doctors recently brought humanitarian spinal surgery to Ethiopia.
No rest for this woman – she found more purpose and then, more purpose, as time went on.
As a 70-year-old woman, Henrietta was a member of the Palestine Zionist Executive, the Jewish Agency Executive and the Vaad Leumi. Photos show her as often being the only woman in the room. In these capacities she directed the health/educational development and social services of the population. And then, Henrietta took over the daily operations of Youth Aliyah in Palestine. Youth Aliyah was created to bring Jewish children out of Nazi Germany and bring them to Palestine.
In 1943, Henrietta waited in the cold at the Atlit Detention Camp as 750 children from Iran disembarked a train (120 followed a few months later), saved from the atrocities of Nazi Germany. Hadassah joined the life-saving work of Youth Aliyah and continues to be a major supporter to this day. Today, Hadassah-supported youth villages, Meir Shfeyah, Ramat Hadassah Szold and Hadassah Neurim, set at-risk children in Israel on the road to success and since its beginning, more than 300,000 young people from 80 lands have graduated from Youth Aliyah.
Always with an eye to the future, Henrietta Szold’s connection to Young Judaea, began in 1909, when she prompted the Federation of American Zionists to call for a junior Zionist convention of delegates from Zionist youth societies. Young Judaea was formally established as a national Zionist youth organization at that New York convention. And then, under the leadership of Henrietta Szold, the department of education was formed by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), which briefly sponsored Young Judaea from 1918 to 1921. Over the years, there were many different connections between Henrietta, Hadassah and Young Judaea. Today, Hadassah and Young Judaea continue their connection through their shared mission to forge a strong commitment to Jewish life, instill a love of Israel and Zionism, connect American kids to Israel through education and programs, develop leaders for the Jewish community, and advocacy. Henrietta Szold and Hadassah – in the room!
Today Hadassah has 300,000 members, Associates and supporters. It is the largest Jewish women’s membership organization in the United States. With members in every Congressional district, Hadassah’s advocacy work in spear-heading important legislation, most recently, the Never Again Education Act working to ensure Holocaust education in public schools, is a direct modern-day application of Henrietta’s legacy and an illustration of purpose with action. Hadassah women are in the room!
So, I think you can see that Henrietta started a run – a run of practical Zionism that stretches across decades and centuries. A run I am proud to be part of since it has enabled me to work for Israel while living here in New York. It has allowed me to make differences around the world through medical research and protocols that are shared. Four generations of life members in my family. Three generations of Hadassah Presidents in my family. Once I make our new grandson an Associate, five generations of men affiliated with Hadassah. For me, personally, Hadassah is a family affair.
Today Hadassah strives to empower women of all ages to make a difference and to become leaders in the Jewish community by continuing Henrietta’s legacy of Practical Zionism through our work in Israel, our advocacy here in the US, on issues that affect Israel, the Jewish community and health. Henrietta asked the artist of her sculpture to “make my eyes look to the future.” A most meaningful and purposeful statement.
Boy, I would love to know what Henrietta carried in that black bag of hers, or better yet, what her bag would hold today. I can only imagine that she was the one with the tissues to wipe the eyes of the young children as they disembarked the train. She would be the one with the cell phone to reach out to anyone who would listen to her pleas for assistance and for funding to facilitate medical research and care of youth. She would be the one with the small flashlight to bring a big light unto the nations. Over the years I have implored our members to “release their inner Henrietta.” A woman of purpose and perseverance to emulate for sure.