Henrietta Szold was a major American Zionist leader. She was born in Baltimore in 1860, the eldest of five daughters in an Orthodox Jewish family. Her parents provided her with an extensive school education. Szold worked as a social worker, teacher and author; and founded Hadassah, the Zionist women’s organization.
Szold was committed to Zionism from an early age. This was reinforced by a trip to Palestine in 1909, which she undertook with her mother. Horrified by the catastrophic hygienic conditions, the poverty and the high infant mortality rate, Szold declared it her life’s work to devote herself to the welfare of the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community of Palestine). In 1912, Szold, along with six other women, founded Hadassah, an organization named after the Biblical Queen Esther. The organization recruited American Jewish women to improve health care in Palestine. Szold was its president until 1926.
Hadassah’s first project was an American-style nursing program in Jerusalem. The Hadassah organization funded hospitals, a medical school, dental facilities, X-ray clinics, baby centers, soup kitchens, and other services. Not only the Jewish, but also the Muslim and Christian residents benefited from this. It was always Szold’s stated concern to care for all people, regardless of their origin or religion – a completely new concept in the Holy Land at the beginning of the 20th century.
Furthermore, Henrietta Szold initiated “Tipat Chalav” (“A Drop of Milk”), which began distributing pasteurized milk in Jerusalem to expectant mothers, infants and young children. Over the years this “drop of milk” has grown into a nationwide system of family health centers, now under the umbrella of the Israeli Ministry of Health. These centers are administered by the District Health Offices (Lishkat Briut Ezorit) and are mainly staffed by female health workers. They include doctors, nutritionists, health advisors and social workers.
A fervent Zionist, Szold immigrated to Eretz Israel in 1933 and actively supported the leadership of Aliyat HaNoar, an organization that saved 30,000 Jewish children from the Nazis. Szold worked tirelessly to bring Jews back to Israel in spite of British restrictions, in the so-called “illegal” immigration (“Ha’apalah”). In recognition of her work, the Palmach pre-state paramilitary brigade of the Haganah, named a ship after her. The Kibbutz Kfar Szold in Galilee also bears her name. Szold was a member of the Va’ad Le’umi, the executive branch of the Jewish representatives in the Yishuv, the Jewish polity in Palestine before the founding of the state.
In October 1934, a year after aliyah, Szold laid the foundation stone for Hadassah University Hospital on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. A decade earlier, in 1925, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem had been founded nearby.
In 1942 she co-founded Ihud, a political party in Mandate Palestine that advocated a binational solution.
She did not live long enough to witness the attack on a convoy on its way to Hadassah Hospital in 1947, which killed 78 people. As a result of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, the Mount of Olives was cut off from the rest of Jerusalem, leaving Mount Scopus an Israeli exclave. From then on, every trip to and from the hospital required UN and Jordanian approval. David Ben-Gurion was able to convince the Hadassah organization of his plans to build another Hadassah hospital on the other side of Jerusalem in Ein Kerem.
On February 13, 1945, Henrietta Szold died at the age of 84 in Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. She was buried in the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.
After the Six Day War, Israel took over this cemetery, but it was in poor condition. Many tombstones had been vandalized, and the Jordanians had built a road over Szold’s grave. Her resting place was identified on the basis of an old site plan and by counting the depressions in the ground. The grave site was reconstructed and given a new stone in a solemn ceremony.
Israel celebrates “Family Day” every year on Shvat 30 (the date of the Jewish calendar falls in the period of January/February). It is the anniversary of the death of the Zionist hero Henrietta Szold, an intrepid visionary and nationwide mother figure.
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