Educator and social activist Henrietta Szold is best known as the founder of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Inc. Szold was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1860. The oldest daughter of a well-known rabbi, Henrietta was given a well-rounded education both by her parents and at Western High School. Upon her graduation in 1877, having achieved an outstanding academic record, she began teaching at a Baltimore girls” school. For the next fifteen years she taught a broad range of subjects, including languages, mathematics, and history.
Also during this time, she developed a night school program to help newly arrived immigrants learn English and civics. By 1898, more than 5,000 Jewish and non-Jewish immigrants had attended the program, which had been taken over by the city of Baltimore. In addition, in 1893 Szold became the first full-time secretary of the Jewish Publication Society of America, a position she held for twenty-three years, with duties similar to the position of editor-in-chief.
In 1909, she and her 70-year old mother spent six months traveling around Palestine. This trip became a major turning point in Szold’s life. Impressed by the beauty of the countryside, but appalled by the overwhelming conditions of poverty and disease, she returned to the U.S. determined to make a difference in pre-state Israel.
In 1912 she founded Hadassah (from the Biblical name for Queen Esther, one of the greatest Jewish heroines), which has since become one of the largest American women’s social action organizations. The organization is credited with having had a profound effect on the establishment of life-changing medical, educational, and social practices in pre-state Israel. The American Zionist Medical Unit, founded by Hadassah in 1916, sent doctors, nurses, and supplies to the area, completely transforming health care in the region.
In 1920, Szold returned to Palestine to help the AZMU and spent most of the next twenty-five years there. During this time, her last significant and possibly most important achievement occurred; Szold directed Youth Aliyah, which brought more than 11,000 young people from the threats of Nazi Europe to pre-state Israel. This effort, as much as anything Szold did in her 84 years of social activism, bore witness to her oft-repeated phrase, “make my eyes look toward the future.”