A photo from 1922 of Henrietta Szold in her Jerusalem home. Wikimedia

This month marks the birthday of social activist Henrietta Szold. She was born in Baltimore Dec. 2, 1860. 

April wind passed us by like the smoke of men’s extinguished hookah pipes or the steam of goldenly-charred tea leaves in hot water. My classmates and I, during our semester abroad, were on the rooftop of a crumbling building. Our vantage point revealed the Judean hills — rolling, rolling — that separated the shiny buildings and white stone of our Jewish boarding school from the beaten rugs and dried soccer fields of surrounding Arab villages. Looking down, through a Jewish-American lens, I saw a conflict, a stark separation between Jewish and Arab communities.

More than a century ago activist Henrietta Szold saw, through her own Jewish-American lens, a conflict older than the Partition Plan or Green Line. She did not see a conflict between ideologies, but the conflict that transcended them: poverty. 

Szold left New York City to visit Palestine for the first time in 1909. In a horse-drawn carriage, she traveled to the green Galilee and its struggling farm communities. Jerusalem would reveal its strong connections with individual peoples — for Christians, the Holy Sepulchre; for Jews, the Kotel; for Muslims, the Dome of the Rock. But the communities of the three Abrahamic faiths revealed a common struggle, each lacked basic sanitation and was plagued by disease.

Upon her return to America, Szold’s Zionism was recharged. In 1912 she convened a small group of women in New York City and formed Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, and a humanistic form of Zionism was born. Szold identified global injustice as the enemy and saw practical social programs benefitting all human beings as the means to combat such injustice. Within a year, Szold raised $2,500 and moved to Jerusalem. Under her supervision two nurses, the first of many, were sent to spread Western hygiene to the people of Palestine, Jew and non-Jew alike. Clinics were established, mothers were given pasteurized milk for their babies, and thousands with trachoma (an eye disease) were treated. Eight years later, during the Arab riots of 1920, Hadassah nurses rushed to treat all citizens regardless of race or religion, shaping Hadassah’s medical philosophy.

Today’s Hadassah Medical Organization, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, reflects Szold’s message and commitment to equality. It is this commitment to all human life, born out of Szold’s humble Hadassah meeting in America, that has inspired global progress in the advancement of basic human rights.

When I find myself revisiting in my memory the roof of the shackled apartment building or struggling to defend Zionism, a now politically-charged term, I think of Henrietta Szold. Her work has revealed Zionism’s potential to not only help impoverished and culturally-polarized areas, but also to promote peace. While Israel still lacks harmony in its border and peace of mind with its neighbors, Szold’s activism is what keeps me, a young American Jew and Zionist, singing Hatikvah, an anthem of hope for our future.