All Rise for Women Change-Makers

As long as she made no demands to earn the title “rabbi,” Henrietta Szold was the first woman, in 1903, allowed to attend classes at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary. Henrietta was one of eight daughters of Rabbi Benjamin and Sophie Szold. I first heard about her at Hebrew School—a passing footnote as a famous woman and that Hadassah hospital was named in her honor. Her informal title was ‘Mother of the Yishuv’, and in Israel, Mother’s Day is celebrated on the day that Szold died, the 30th of the Hebrew month of Shevat…  

The kerfuffle surrounding Dr. Jill Biden’s title made me think about Henrietta afresh. Szold was so much more than a street name, a kibbutz name, or even a hospital; did she want to be a rabbi and use the title? Did she eventually curtail her academic and intellectual pursuits because she realized she would never receive due recognition? 

What title for the women who wrote prayers of devotion for hundreds of years, and for the women who are writing contemporary prayers capturing the essence of women’s lived experiences? 

There are a slew of honorifics for Jewish men within religious life including Rabbi, Dayan [judge], Gaon [brilliant scholar], Gadol ha’dor [greatest of the generation] and Hacham [literally, the wise one, rabbinic leader in the Sephardi community]. A rabbi’s rather cynical son once said to me that at every large event with a head-table full of prominent rabbis, all of whom sport long bushy beards, there will be one clean-shaven man. He’s the guy who paid for the whole thing. He’s called the Gvir, the wealthy person whose generosity buys power and access. 

Women are also using their money to support religious change and Henrietta Szold could hardly have imagined the transformation. Since the 1970s, women have been ordained in the Reform and Conservative movements, and in the last few years, the phenomenon of Orthodox women rabbis, and more broadly, the exponential increase in women’s Talmud study, has demanded appropriate titles for learned women. Hence titles including Rabba, Rabbanit, Yo’etzet Halacha, To’anot, Rabaniyot, Maharat and Ma’ayan have emerged, although in some circles, these nomenclatures have been mocked.  

These titles focus primarily on scholarly achievements, but we need a corresponding title for the women at the helm of social change, those using their intelligence, political skill, empathy, networks, foresight and dogged determination to effectively address a communal need. 

We stand up for esteemed rabbis, a sign of the respect for the Torah knowledge they have acquired. Next time a modern Henrietta Szold walks into the room, I suggest we stand up for her as well. And call her by her title. 


SALLY BERKOVIC, “What Title for Henrietta Szold?” in eJewish Philanthropy, December 22, 2020.