Emily Shrode
Hadassah Evolve Leadership Fellow

Henrietta Szold: The Heartbreak Heroine – For March Women’s History Month

Image of Henrietta Szold courtesy of Hadassah.
Artwork of Henrietta Szold courtesy of Hadassah.

For those who don’t know, it was Henrietta Szold who founded Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, in 1912. This organization became her dazzling legacy and has done life-saving work for over a century. Henrietta is one of my heroines. Jewish life today would not look the same without her.

Henrietta was born to Rabbi Benjamin Szold and his wife, Sophie, in 1860. She grew up in a house with three younger sisters. In the late 1800s, many of the immigrants to America were European Jews who spoke Polish and Russian. Henrietta opened a night school where they learned about American culture along with English. At the same time, she wrote about the American Jewish community for several journals, including the New York Jewish Messenger.

Henrietta’s writings, in turn, strengthened her influence in the Jewish community. In 1888, she earned a place on the Publications Committee of the Jewish Publication Society, the leading not-for-profit publisher of books about Jewish life in the English-speaking world. Ten years later, she became the only woman on the executive committee of the Federation of American Zionists (FAZ).

Any one of these accomplishments would have been enough for an ordinary person–and Henrietta achieved all of this and more.

In the early 1900s, Henrietta fell in to an unrequited love with a man who clearly didn’t know a good opportunity when he saw one. To heal her heartbreak, in 1909 she traveled to what was then Palestine, where she witnessed incredible poverty and rampant disease. Szold envisioned bringing an American standard of medical care to Palestine that would be available to all who lived there regardless of race, religion or nationality. This is still a core value of Hadassah today.

That vision led Henrietta to come home and raise the money among her friends and the members of her study circle to help bring better health to Palestine. In 1912, Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America was born.

Hadassah’s first project was to create a visiting nurse program in Palestine. The program, which lay the foundation for Israel’s modern health care system, eventually grew into the Hadassah Medical Organization. Today, the not-for-profit medical center founded and owned by Hadassah is an essential part of Israel’s medical infrastructure, operating two world-class research hospitals. Hadassah doctors are responsible for countless medical innovations and, together, Hadassah’s hospitals are the third largest employer in Jerusalem.

In the 1930s, Henrietta responded to another crisis in the Jewish world– the rising antisemitism in Europe—when she welcomed into Hadassah’s youth villages groups of children fleeing Nazi Germany. This youth rescue movement became known as Youth Aliyah and, since its inception, Hadassah has been a leader in saving, educating and nurturing orphaned and at-risk youth.  More than 300,000 children from Israel and 80 other countries have graduated from Hadassah’s Youth Aliyah villages alone.

There are a lot of reasons to look to Henrietta as a role model. We can all find inspiration in how she leveraged her strengths to express her core values. She saw a broken world and used her resources, skills and chutzpah to mend it what she could.

In my eyes, what makes Henrietta heroic is her humanity. She experienced a great heartbreak, and instead of losing herself in her own pain, she turned her attention to creating something greater than herself: Hadassah.

I can relate to feeling heartbreak. And I’ll bet that you are no stranger to heartbreak either.

If you are reading the Times of Israel, chances are that you’ve felt heartbroken since October 7. On that day, more Jews were slaughtered than on any single day since the Holocaust. Before I could even wrap my head around the violence, I saw my Israeli friends Ayden and Gilad fly back to Israel from the US to join the war effort. And before I or anyone else had a chance to mourn those lost on October 7, antisemitic incidents began to pop up around the world.

Since October 7, we as Jews have had to be on guard. And it’s been difficult to find pockets of hope — but not impossible.

One thing we all have in common is our ability to choose how we respond to hardship.

It is unlikely that most of us will, like Henrietta Szold, travel halfway across the world and establish a medical organization that saves thousands of lives. But there is something that you can do within our own spheres of influence. What is that something? How will you help to heal our broken world?

About the Author
Hadassah Evolve Leadership Fellow Emily Shrode brings fresh eyes to the organization, now beginning its 113th year. On the local level, Emily serves on the board of Hadassah's chapter in Austin, Texas, where she currently resides and is a member of the Hadassah Writers' Circle. For Emily, Hadassah is a means of spreading hope and healing the world. She hopes to share her passion for the mission of Hadassah with others throughout her continued involvement in the organization. As a community builder, Emily sees value in what Hadassah does on the local level by providing a space for women to grow meaningful connections with one another.
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