Henrietta Szold

Living History Performance

Before “community organizing” had a name, there was Henrietta Szold – the rabbi’s daughter who broke with the traditional role of women to become a champion of Jewish engagement. Her tenacity and courage played a vital role in the expansion of social services, medical services and the founding of the state of Israel.

Henrietta Szold with her sisters Bertha, Rachel, Adele, and Sadie, 1888. JMM 1992.242.6.20c


Henrietta Szold grew up amidst a rich union of European, Jewish, and American traditions.  Her parents, Benjamin and Sophie Schaar Szold, emigrated from Hungary in 1859, so that Benjamin could become the rabbi of Baltimore’s congregation Oheb Shalom. Born the following year, Henrietta, the oldest of five sisters, became her father’s most prized student. He shared with her his love and knowledge of the texts and traditions of the Jewish people as well as his determination to create an updated form of Judaism that could be respectful of both the past and the present.

In the late 1870s, Henrietta Szold and her father began to go down to the Baltimore docks to assist Jewish immigrants arriving from Eastern Europe and Russia.  Henrietta established the first American night school to provide English language instruction and vocational skills to Russian Jewish immigrants in East Baltimore.  Henrietta found spiritual community and was absorbed the hopes of those in the Russian intellectual community who believed that the creation of Jewish community in Palestine could also preserve Judaism as a meaningful way of life in the Diaspora. In 1893, Szold became a member of the fledgling Zionist Association of Baltimore and, in 1896, published a lecture outlining her Zionist views, one month before the appearance of Theodor Herzl’s first Zionist writing. When the Federation of American Zionists (FAZ) was founded in 1898, Szold became a member of its executive committee.

In 1888, Szold was elected as the only female member of the newly founded Jewish Publication Society. After the death of her father in 1902, Szold moved with her mother to New York City in order to prepare herself to edit her father’s papers through study at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Szold was allowed the status of special student based upon her assurance that she would not seek rabbinic ordination.

Henrietta traveled to Palestine with her mother in the fall of 1909. Refusing to be limited by the usual Holy Land itinerary during their month-long stay, Szold and her 70-year-old mother set out in a horse-drawn cart visiting struggling agricultural settlements around the Galilee.  While visiting the poor quarters of Jerusalem, they were appalled by the poverty and disease rampant among Muslim, Christian, and Jewish inhabitants.

Henrietta Szold and Sophie Szold with two unidentified women in Jerusalem, 1910. JMM 1992.242.7.19

On her return to New York, Szold immersed herself more deeply in Zionist activities. She presented a slide lecture of her Palestine visit that introduced Jewish women’s audiences to the challenges faced by Zionist pioneers. She spoke of the promise that Western hygiene could bring to women in Palestine together with the spiritual uplift that such work could bestow upon women in the Diaspora. Szold also accepted the position of secretary to the fledgling Federation of American Zionists.

On February 24, 1912, Henrietta Szold established Hadassah, a women’s Zionist organization.  Hadassah was devoted to the promotion of Jewish ideals, institutions, and enterprises in Palestine. One of Hadassah’s initial outreach activities was to establish a hospital in Jerusalem. On January 18, 1913, two nurses were sent to Israel.  In March of that same year, they opened a nurse’s settlement.  They served five thousand patients that year alone.

The last major effort of Henrietta Szold’s life turned out to be one of the most challenging, engaging, and significant of her career. In early 1930, with conditions for Jews in Germany deteriorating rapidly, Szold took hold of Youth Aliyah, putting into place a giant effort that entailed preparing and organizing young people in Germany to live in Palestine, securing visas and transportation, and establishing an educational and support system for the new arrivals within Jewish agricultural settlements.

Henrietta Szold going over plans with madrichim at a kibbutz, c. 1938. JMM 1992.242.7.178

Eleven thousand young people, first from Germany and then from other nations that fell under the Nazi shadow, came to Palestine as part of Youth Aliyah. Szold tried to meet every arriving transport of children and took a personal interest in the placement and situation of every child. Her intense commitment to the children of Youth Aliyah gained the childless Szold recognition, throughout Palestine and the Jewish world, as a true mother in Israel.

Henrietta Szold’s life and career proved both a model and a catalyst for transforming and redefining possibilities for women in Jewish communal life. In her life and career, Henrietta Szold posed questions and faced challenges that Jewish women in North America and around the world continue to explore.

Henrietta Szold is portrayed by Natalie Pilcher Smith. Photo by Will Kirk.

Natalie Pilcher Smith led the theatre program at St. Paul’s School where she taught middle-school theater classes and directed the middle-school plays. She has chaired the Theater Department at Oldfields School, taught at Catonsville Community College and Peabody Preparatory and directed for Pumpkin Theater, Park School Theater Arts Summer Camps, Krieger Schechter Day School and Beth Tfiloh Theater Camp. Ms. Smith comes with a wealth of administrative experience in education and children’s programming from Baltimore School for the Arts, Free Montessori School, and TASIS England American School.

Living History Program performances are available for schools, public and private events and can take place at the Museum or outside venues.

Learn about booking the performance for an adult group here.

Learn about booking the performance for a school group here.

Henrietta Szold: Living History Character was made possible through the generous support of the Kolker-Saxon-Hallock Family Foundation, Inc., a supporting foundation of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. Educational opportunities were made possible by the Jacob & Hilda Blaustein Fund of The Associated.

Looking for more great Henrietta Szold experiences? Check out Henrietta Szold’s Baltimore from 1860-1902, an innovative and interactive mobile tour based on her early life in Baltimore. Download the free izi.travel 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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