Hadassah, The Women's Zionist Organization of America, was founded by Henrietta Szold in 1912.
Born in 1860, Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold was raised in Baltimore, MD, by parents who encouraged education—even for a daughter. Henrietta was the first female editor of the Jewish Publication Society—then the premiere publisher of Jewish liturgical and secular texts. She defied convention and studied at Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the training ground for the conservative rabbinate, although female rabbis were unheard of in the early 1900s.
Henrietta saw the suffering of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe, and organized English language and American citizenship night classes to provide them with greater opportunities. Her model of nighttime ESL schools continues to this day.
But it was a trip to pre-state Israel with her mother that changed Henrietta’s view of the world. She saw Jews living in camps without proper plumbing or sanitation. Horrified by the impact starvation and disease had on her people, she took action.
Returning to America, Henrietta founded Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America in 1912. Henrietta called for practical Zionism, proactive work to help meet the health needs of Palestine's people. She motivated Jewish women to support a feet-on the-ground approach to end the deplorable conditions in pre-state Israel. Their original mission was Aruhat Bat Ami: the Healing of the Daughter of my People.
The new organization's first act was to collect money and send two nurses to Palestine in 1913 to provide pasteurized milk to infants and new mothers, and to eradicate trachoma, an easily cured eye disease, that was robbing thousands of sight. From that beginning, Hadassah Medical Organization flourished over the next century into two world-class medical and research centers in Jerusalem. By 1918, Hadassah had sent an entire medical unit, comprised of 45 doctors, nurses, dentists and sanitary workers, to bring American-style medical care to the Middle East.
From these early efforts developed the beginning of the Israeli healthcare system, which today includes some of the world's leading research and treatment hospitals, and schools of medicine and nursing.
At the dawn of the Holocaust in Europe, in the 1930s, Henrietta Szold and a German colleague organized the rescue of thousands of Jewish children to safety in Palestine through Youth Aliyah. She met every boat as it arrived. Hadassah still supports Youth Aliyah villages for at-risk children in Israel.
Today, with 330,000 members, Associates and supporters, Hadassah remains committed to Jewish continuity and building a better world through medicine and healthcare, advocacy, and communities of women. In 2012 Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, celebrated its centennial in Israel. Not long before her death, when a sculptor was creating a bust of Henrietta Szold, she asked him to “make my eyes look to the future.” Henrietta Szold is testament to what one person, one organization, and one vision, can accomplish.
Late in her life, a sculptor was commissioned to create her likeness. When he asked her how she wished to be portrayed, she answered, "Make my eyes look to the future."
As we approach our Hadassah centennial Henrietta Szold's legacy of commitment and caring and improving the world through practical deeds lives on in the work of the hundreds of thousands of Hadassah women today.