Revolutionizing Experiences: Henrietta Szold’s First Visit to the Holy Land Part 3

Posted on August 21st, 2017 by

Letter by Henrietta Szold. Originally published in Generations 2007-2008: Maryland and Israel

Part III: Epilogue

Miss the beginning? Start here.

Despite Szold’s remark that her trip to Palestine would amount to nothing more than a “stimulating memory without much noticeable result in action,” both she and the letter’s recipient knew that something important had happened to her. Judge Sulzberger, recognizing the letter’s significance, returned it to her for safekeeping. She promptly sent it back to him, with this response, written February 24, 1910 (JMM 1995.206.2).


Dear Judge Sulzberger:

You are right, vanity (or self-consciousness) is next door neighbor to my humility. But I assue you, I did not remember how much emotion I put into the letter I wrote to you – I only remembered that it was the first I wrote about the Holy Land and the longest, and I supposed it to be the fullest of these accounts.

Now that I have seen it and some of those I wrote later on to others, I conclude that if it made itself worthy of a better fate than the waste basket, it must have been due somehow or other to the correspondent I was addressing.

Here is some more pride – outspoken pride. I have felt so complimented by your having kept it, that I am returning it to you in spite of your waiving your rights in it. I have made a copy of it, for I may want to use some of its points in a book, which I am inclined to think, will get itself written.


Yours very truly,

Henrietta Szold

In 1920 Henrietta Szold returned to Palestine, settling there for the rest of her life. JMM 1992.242.7.43b

In 1920 Henrietta Szold returned to Palestine, settling there for the rest of her life. JMM 1992.242.7.43b

~The End~

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Revolutionizing Experiences: Henrietta Szold’s First Visit to the Holy Land Part 1

Posted on August 14th, 2017 by

Letter by Henrietta Szold. Originally published in Generations 2007-2008: Maryland and Israel


Henrietta Szold (1860 – 1945) has long been celebrated for her role in building a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The founder of Hadassah and the force behind Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, she virtually created the public health system in pre-state Israel and also ran the Youth Aliyah, which safely brought thousands of Jewish youth out of Nazi Germany and into Palestine during the 1930s. Remarkably, all these achievements occurred after Szold turned fifty. Though she had been involved in Zionist circles in her native Baltimore and later New York City, it was not until she traveled to Palestine with her mother in 1909 that she made improving conditions her life’s work.

Henrietta Szold and her mother Sophie, August 1909, visiting friends in England before traveling through Europe to Palestine. JMM 1992.242.7.13

Henrietta Szold and her mother Sophie, August 1909, visiting friends in England before traveling through Europe to Palestine. JMM 1992.242.7.13

Not that Szold was a late bloomer. From 1889, when she became superintendent of the nation’s first immigrant night school in Baltimore, to her many years working as an editor at the Jewish Publication Society of America, she had been an important contributor to American Jewish cultural affairs. But in 1908, when leading Jewish scholar Louis Ginzberg, with whom she had worked closely and fallen in love, rejected her for a younger woman, she suffered an emotional crisis that led her to question her previous twenty years in service to male-run institutions. She needed a new direction, and her trip to Palestine enabled her to find it. She came to see that her longstanding belief in “spiritual Zionism” – the development of Jewish settlement in the Holy Land as a way to bring about spiritual renewal for modern Jewry – could be advanced by encouraging women to engage in practical work to address the dire health conditions she had witnessed during her trip.

This realization did not occur immediately, as demonstrated by the letter printed here, one of the gems of the JMM archives (1995.206.1). Writing to her mentor, Judge Mayer Sulzberger, just after leaving Palestine, she expresses doubts about herself as well as the state of the Zionist movement. But she also vividly describes the transformative effect the visit had on her. Upon her return to America, she embarked on a new path that led to the founding of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, in 1912. Another visit to Palestine in 1920 resulted in her settling there permanently to overs the various projects she had initiated.

Szold did not always agree with the Zionist establishment; in the 1930s and 1940s, for example, she publicly supported a bi-national state. Her strongly independent thought is on display here, in her honest critique of the Zionist project as she saw it “on the ground.” But her belief in the Holy Land as a way to renew the Jewish people shines through as well.

The Letter, page 1

The Letter, page 1

The Letter:

The Mediterranean, between Alexandira and Trieste

November 28, 1909


Dear Judge Sulzberger:

My very indefinite dating of this letter indicates only one thing definitely – that my face is at last set westward and homeward. I feel that this is the time when I may venture to give you a little account of my impressions – don’t be alarmed, I shall not subject you to a catalogue of sights and scenes. This is the proper time because I cannot help believing that Italy, even Italy, which is to fill out the rest of my long vacation, must be in the nature of an anti-climax after my Oriental experiences. If I were younger I should call them revolutionizing experiences. At all events, if I had undergone them earlier in life, they might have had a decidedly shaping influence upon my Jewish attitude and work. As it is, they will probably be a very stimulating memory without much noticeable result in action.

It was not due to any conscious arrangement on my part that my trip abroad arranged itself as it did. I spent the first month in Scotland and England, all the time I was there I tingled with the feeling that I was in my intellectual home. My Anglo-Saxon education announced itself at every step. I had no right to feel that blood was thicker than water, to be sure, but I discovered that brain tissue is not a negligible element in appreciating relationships.

From there we went direct to Vienna and Hungary, my mother’s home, from which she had gone away fifty years to a week when we returned. And there I did learn that blood is thicker than water. I found a really huge circle of relatives, ready-made and ready to receive me as though I had had the same intellectual and sentimental antecedents with themselves. It was as rare an experience as cathedrals and picture galleries to me, for we are a very small family in America and I have never known the pleasure of the intimacy that stands between family ties and friendships. And it was curious to observe how America had done little more than modify external characteristics; the family soul had remained unimpinged by time and distance.

But I feel that my real experiences began when I left Buda-Pest and was whirled through Servia [sic], Bulgaria, and Turkey to Constantinople. Again, in the ordering of my Oriental trip, chance was kind to me. I cannot be sufficiently thankful that I had the opportunity of seeing Constantinople, Smyrna, Alexandria, Beirut, and Damascus before I entered the Holy Land proper.

Also, it was lucky for me that I did not, like most tourists, enter by way of Jaffa and Jerusalem. That was intentional maneuvering on my part. I wanted to see the land with my own eyes, or spectacles if you will, not through the spectacles of the warring factions in the two intellectual centres. The other chance gave me a true Oriental setting for the Holy Land, the proper atmosphere. After seeing half a dozen cities and the country districts, even if only from the car window or the carriage seat, I knew enough to distinguish between what is peculiarly Jewish and generally Oriental. It was eminently useful knowledge. I know it to be such when I remember what other six-weeks-tourists of Palestine on their return.

Continue to Part II: Entering the Holy Land[1]

[1] Interested in more Henrietta Szold history? Check out Henrietta Szold’s Baltimore from 1860-1902, an innovative and interactive mobile tour on the early life of Henrietta Szold, developed by the Jewish Museum of Maryland. Download the free mobile app and follow the JMM’s audio tour that will lead you through the progression of Henrietta’s early life, which also tells the story of the German-Jewish immigrants to Baltimore and the Russian Jews that followed decades later. Each stop on the tour includes unique, historical images that will transport you back in time to see Baltimore through the eyes of the Szolds.


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A letter to my 5-year-old

Posted on February 9th, 2017 by

This post was originally published at Huffington Post via a special series from the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies. For more information on this please see the statement at the bottom of this post.

Protest sign from a march/rally/protest held on May 1, 2015 in response to the ongoing uprising/unrest in Baltimore after the arrest and subsequent death of Freddie Gray.  Rally organized by Baltimore United for Change, SEIU, and CASA. These signs were printed up and made available to protesters who did not make or bring their own. JMM K2015.2.1

Protest sign from a march/rally/protest held on May 1, 2015 in response to the ongoing uprising/unrest in Baltimore after the arrest and subsequent death of Freddie Gray. Rally organized by Baltimore United for Change, SEIU, and CASA. These signs were printed up and made available to protesters who did not make or bring their own. JMM K2015.2.1

Dear Daughter,

I know sometimes it feels like I’m always away at meetings. For three nights this week alone, I will not be home for dinner with you.

When you get a little older, perhaps I will bring you with me to some of my meetings. For now, I want you to know that even though it means I am not always with you, I do what I do for you. I do it because you deserve everything the world can offer; because you deserve to inherit a just world.

One day, I will have you read the open letter I wrote to God in which I describe the moment that changed the course of my life–our lives–and started me on this specific journey.

Until then, as you watch the work that I do—the meetings for Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, for Jews United for Justice, with The Open Church, and the Institute for Islamic, Christian, & Jewish Studies—the persistent, incremental, often thankless time I spend thinking, talking, reading, planning, calling, and crying for justice and fairness, I hope you are learning what it means to be a citizen; I pray you are learning what it means to be a Jew.

I want you to know that I do what I do because I am Jewish, because I feel that God and the world demand it of me. And even as I teach you what is precious to me about our inherited tradition, I want you to know others who work for justice.

I want you to know them as Muslims, Christians, and Unitarians, as Mormons, Hindus, and Buddhists. I especially want you to know the Atheists, and yes, the other Jews. You need to understand why I do what I do, even as you see that the Jewish framework that motivates me is not the only one.

When you begin to see what we have in common, and just as importantly, what is distinct for each of us, I believe you will begin to see, as I strive to, what is beautiful in all of us. You will feel what is beautiful in yourself. Our capacity to see the beauty–and pain–in others and feel it in ourselves is the divine working through us; empathy is a gift from God.

God gives us this gift to help us to fulfill God’s command “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deut 16:20). Justice, My Love, is fairness, but it is more than that. Justice is balance. It is the state of affairs in which everyone gets what they deserve.

Sadly, it is a rare occurrence for far too many people. You will learn, Sweetheart, that it is easy to see when justice is denied to you (even now, you already complain to me when you believe you are the victim of injustice). It can be harder to recognize injustice when it doesn’t affect you directly. What’s worse, sometimes even justice is difficult to recognize or accept if its manifestation means the loss of some privilege.

And that is why God has granted us empathy. The capacity to feel another’s pain is an important step toward recognizing, embracing, and pursuing justice when that justice is not for you.

Do not misunderstand my words. You know, Little One, that I am precise with my language. When I say “empathy,” I mean empathy. I do not mean pity. Pity is not an equitable emotion. If you are feeling pity for someone, you need to examine your heart and do what you can to move past the judgment inherent there. Pity is an emotion based on unequal power, and it does not bring the world closer to the world I want for you.

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

President Obama wisely reminded us of the nature of empathy when he invoked the words of To Kill A Mockingbird in his farewell address. He said:

“Each one of us needs to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction, Atticus Finch, ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.'”

This is what I want you to remember from the President’s Atticus-advice: you will never completely understand what another person is feeling, but you must try. To do so, you must believe people when they express their lived experience even when it doesn’t match yours. When you do, you will be practicing empathy, and I believe it will lead you toward justice.

In a very old book known as the Wisdom of the Fathers, or Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Tarfon is reported to have said, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither may you desist from it.” (2:21)

For Rabbi Tarfon, and for me, “work” is the repair of the world. The truth of his pronouncement–both that I cannot expect to complete the task and that I cannot shirk my responsibility to try–resonate for me and through me. It is the wisdom of these words that guide me, day after day, as I grapple with the enormity of the world’s grief and the limits of my own power.

Especially in the face of injustice, in the shadow of bullies, abusers, and bigots, it is easy to feel powerless. The brokenness of the world is daunting. It is overwhelming. But Sweetheart, do not be misled. I am powerful. You are powerful. We are powerful.

I have seen change happen–not earthquakes, but small shifts in attitude, in posture, in acceptance. I have felt the cumulative energy of a room full of people willing to embrace the suffering of others; embrace it and say, “I see that you are in pain and I am diminished by it.”

I do not know if the world I want for you will exist in my lifetime–or yours. I pray that it will even as I fear that it will not. Nevertheless, for your sake, for our neighbors’ sake, for your grandparents’ and your children’s sake, for God’s sake, for my sake, I may not desist.


My deepest love always,

Your mother

A blog post by Associate Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.


The city of Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race and community. At this pivotal moment in our city’s history, indeed our nation’s history, the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies highlights the continued importance of bringing diverse religious perspectives to address civic and social challenges. In the initiative Imagining Justice in Baltimore the ICJS will contribute the perspectives of local Jews, Christians and Muslims to the public conversation about justice, and injustice, in Baltimore. Each contributor represents her or his own opinion. We welcome this diversity of perspective and are not seeking a single definition of justice between traditions, nor denying the multivocal nature of justice within traditions. The long-term goal of the Imagining Justice in Baltimore initiative is to create a model of interreligious learning and dialogue around differences that demonstrates how a robust commitment to religious pluralism can shape public life.

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