Next week we will celebrate Purim and enjoy the many traditions that make this holiday so lively and meaningful. Some of us will dress up in fancy dress and attend Purim parties; we may send and receive mishloach manot, and many of us will gather in shuls and schools to listen to the Megillah reading, and refresh our memories about this super-dramatic chapter of our peoples’ history.
Purim is also an opportunity to remember and pay tribute to another Hadassah — the women’s organization, and to its founder, Henrietta Szold.
Why at Purim? Well, this is just a reminder, but we all should know that the women’s organization was founded on Purim 191′ by a small group of women, and they chose to name it Hadassah, which was Queen Esther’s Hebrew name.
The idea of founding a women’s Zionist organization, which would focus on promoting health care and medical treatment in Palestine, was born during Szold’s first visit to Palestine in 1909.
The Baltimore-born Henrietta Szold visited Palestine at the age of 49 with her mother, Sophie. The two brave women enjoyed a truly amazing and unconventional adventure. They arrived at the port of Beirut and traveled by the old Turkish train via Damascus to Tiberias. From there, in a horse and carriage, they made their way through the newly founded Galilee settlements, along the coast to Jaffa, visited Jerusalem, and then boarded a ship at the port of Jaffa, and returned to the United States.
The highlight of this outstanding, pioneering, eye-opening mission to Eretz Yisrael was the famous story that, by tradition, was the trigger for creating Hadassah. In the old town of Jaffa, the ladies noticed that many of the children running in the filthy streets had black rings around their eyes. When they took a closer look they realized, to their great astonishment, that the rings were made up of hundreds of tiny little black flies. This was a sign of the terrible trachoma disease.
Szold returned to America with a great determination to take some action. She embarked on a lecture tour of the country and presented her cause. With a few friends she came up with the idea of creating a volunteer women’s organization, one with a Zionist-apolitical agenda, which would promote and establish a modern medical care system in Palestine. Szold was nominated as the first president of Hadassah and successfully led the organization for 14 years.
Ten years later, at the age of 59, Szold made aliyah. Her next historic mission began in the early 1930s, when it became imperative to evacuate thousands of Jewish youth from Nazi Germany. Once again, Szold devoted herself to this task. The Youth Aliyah movement was formed. Ships bringing Jewish youth arrived in Palestine from Europe. These children were sent to kibbutzim all over Israel. A new kibbutz was established in the upper Galilee at that time, and was named in honor of this remarkable woman. It was known as Kibbutz Kfar Szold.
Many years of Zionist activities lay ahead, and Szold, who was blessed with infinite energy, devoted herself to the creation of a new state. Unfortunately, she did not live to see her dream come true. In 1945, at the age of 85, she died and was buried in Jerusalem. She did not have any children of her own, but was the mother of tens of thousands of children who owe their lives, their health and their education to the actions of this great woman. Until this day, Mother’s Day in Israel is still celebrated on Szold’s birthday, 30 of Shevat.
Next week, we will all gather in shuls and schools to hear the Megillah reading. Once again, we will rejoice over the shrewd and brave actions of Queen Esther. We will admire her bold leadership as she risked her own life and devoted herself to save and assist her people. I urge us all to use this opportunity to spare a few moments of thought and meditation to Hadassah and Henrietta Szold, this modern Jewish queen who also devoted her life to her people, acted as a role model, and created and promoted organizations that save lives and give hope.
Szold and Hadassah also emphasize the unbreakable bond between Israel and North American Jewry. The Hadassah organization, with its hundreds of thousands of devoted volunteers, ensures this bond each day, and enables us to indeed be one people.
I wish us all Purim sameach, a happy 94th birthday to the Hadassah organization, and thank you, Hadassah women all over the world, for keeping Queen Esther’s and Szold’s legacy alive.
David Hyman is shaliach for UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey and director of its Israel Programs Center.