President’s Column: Back Where We Began
Commemorating our Centennial in the temple’s majestic sanctuary was an unforgettable experience. The sense of history, and the personal connection everyone felt with that history, was overwhelming. Members of Henrietta Szold’s family were on hand for the occasion.
The calendar that Shabbat did more than mark 100 years to the day from our chartering. It was also Henrietta Szold’s yortzeit. When Rabbi David Posner asked mourners to stand for Kaddish, hundreds rose to recite the prayer for our founder.
It’s fascinating to look at the Hadassah story from the perch of 100 years. One thing that stands out is our system of values, especially the reputation of our institutions in Israel for equal treatment of all the people they serve, whether they are Jews or Arabs. Many of you may recall that in 2005 the Hadassah Medical Organization was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize because of its conduct during the second intifada.
What we see when we look back at Hadassah’s history is that the belief in equality, and in respect for diversity of all kinds, was present from the beginning. Henrietta Szold, daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, the first woman to study in America’s leading Conservative seminary, launched the Women’s Zionist Organization of America in the flagship synagogue of the Reform movement.
Hadassah’s founding in Temple Emanu-El was no coincidence. In 1907, Judah Magnes, then serving as Emanu-El’s rabbi, had suggested to the head of a women’s study group that she invite Henrietta Szold to join. Five years later, Szold—by then president of the group—transformed the study circle into Hadassah.
She called that first meeting to order in a man’s world. In 1912, American women didn’t even have the right to vote. Our founders made a place for themselves in a Zionist movement that didn’t exactly invite them in as leaders. But in many places—Temple Emanu-El included—Henrietta Szold met men who showed her not only respect but also great confidence.
In addition to Magnes, there was the philanthropist Nathan Straus, who was Hadassah’s partner in dispatching two American nurses to Jerusalem in 1913. That mission was the beginning of our medical work. The network of hospitals and clinics we built in the years to come became the medical care infrastructure of the future State of Israel.
Our values can be seen clearly in the long partnership between Szold, who eventually moved to Jerusalem to oversee Hadassah’s projects, and Magnes, who became the first president of Hebrew University. Both practiced a Zionism that embraced diversity. Ask anyone in Israel today—for that matter, ask Israel’s critics—which institutions have a reputation for treating all they serve equally, and the first two names you are likely to hear are Hadassah and the Hebrew University.
More than a century after Magnes suggested Henrietta Szold join a study group, the institutions the two of them nurtured are partners in running Israel’s leading medical, nursing and dental schools.
It has been noted many times that Hadassah’s ethical foundation is a merging of American and Jewish values. I would not argue with that proposition. But we reinforce our values through practice, and what strikes me about Hadassah’s history is that our adherence to these core values has been a key factor—perhaps the most important factor—in our success.
Peace between Israel and its neighbors seems like a distant dream, but looking at Hadassah’s history gives cause for optimism. One hundred years ago, our founders had little reason to expect fair treatment as citizens or as Zionist activists. Jews of different denominations had little experience of shared interests.
But they took their values seriously and watched as the world changed around them—and as they changed the world. As we gathered in Temple Emanu-El last month, our founders were not so far away. The truth is that we live in the world they built.
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