Henrietta Szold (1860-1945) is best known for founding Hadassah, the largest Jewish organization in American history. However, her early accomplishments breaking gender barriers in turn-of-the-century America are equally notable. Her contributions to American and Jewish history are celebrated this October with her induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls.
In an interview at age 75, Szold credited her achievements to “a strong constitution, a devotion to duty and a big conscience” along with “a pretty big capacity for righteous indignation.”
She was the only woman on the publications committee of the newly formed Jewish Publication Society in 1888, and the Federation of American Zionists elected her as the sole female member of its executive committee in 1898. In 1902, she was admitted to the all-male Jewish Theological Seminary as a “special student” on the condition that she would not seek to be ordained as a rabbi. In the personal realm as well, Szold was fearless about treading into traditionally masculine territory. After her mother died, leaving behind only daughters, a male friend offered to say Kaddish for her. Szold politely refused his offer, stating: “You can do that for the generations of your family, I must do that for the generations of my family.”
Szold never married; her passionate disappointment in love is chronicled in her diaries and her letters to the scholar Louis Ginzburg, for whom she served as translator and editor. She never had children, but as director of Youth Aliyah in the 1930’s, she cared for thousands of European refugee children who arrived in Palestine, involving herself in the placement of every child and meeting the transports personally. In tribute, a young boy from one of the last Youth Aliyah transports recited the Kaddish at her funeral.