Henrietta Szold helps to create American Jewish culture
On July 28, 1893, the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent announced that Henrietta Szold would be moving to Philadelphia from her home in Baltimore to serve as the secretary and first paid employee of the Jewish Publication Society (JPS). Szold had been elected as the only female member of the JPS publication committee when the organization was founded in 1888 in order to provide a steady series of substantive works of Jewish culture to an American audience. Despite the initial apathy and opposition that the JPS encountered, Szold committed herself to the society, at one point "personally addressing eleven hundred circulars and membership blanks" although in the end they only yielded 75 responses. She had already served the organization as an author, translator, and editor, but now she would be a paid employee.
While Henrietta Szold's most significant impact on Jewish life would come after she founded Hadassah, the Zionist women's organization, in 1912, her work at JPS constituted a major contribution to the creation of an American Jewish culture. The Jewish Exponent article about her move to JPS suggests that, even before the formal commencement of this work, Szold was recognized as a woman who had and would continue to play an important role in the American Jewish community. Szold had already established herself as an educator and, through newspaper columns, as an astute observer of Jewish life. According to the Exponent article, "no one better equipped could be found than Miss Szold."
Upon being offered the job of secretary in 1893, Szold withdrew from her positions in Baltimore, including her role as superintendent of the Russian night-school of the Hebrew Literary Society. As the school's founder, superintendent, fundraiser and one of its teachers, she had, according to the article, surrounded herself with teachers "whom she has made thoroughly conversant with her masterful manner of teaching English to Russo-Jewish immigrants, and in the sympathetic manner of engaging their undivided attention so as to develop in them an appreciation of American ideals."
Szold's work for JPS was monumental. Although she worked under the title and salary of secretary, she served as translator, indexer, fact checker, proofreader, statistician, administrator, and editor, overseeing the publication of 87 books during her tenure. Szold's clear mind, exhaustive dedication, and meticulous attention to detail enabled the Society to offer a remarkable literary and scholarly array. Many of the translations and original works published by JPS during this time still inform contemporary American Jewish culture and scholarship. A new Bible translation and the series of American Jewish Year Books that commenced publication in 1900 began to define the contours of a distinctive American Jewish intellectual world. After twenty-two years, Szold withdrew from JPS work in 1916 when a group of Zionists offered to provide her with an annuity in order to support her growing work for Hadassah.
To learn more about Henrietta Szold, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia and Women of Valor.
See also: This Week in History for December 21, 1935; February 13, 1945; and February 24, 1912; Jewish Women On the Road; Go & Learn: Primary Documents and Lesson Plans Henrietta Szold on Saying Kaddish; Jewesses with Attitude, "Henrietta Szold: travel and transformation"; Henrietta Szold poster.
Sources: Jewish Exponent, July 28, 1893; JWA Henrietta Szold exhibit, jwa.org/womenofvalor/szold; Jonathan D. Sarna, JPS: The Americanization of Jewish Culture, 1888–1988 (Philadelphia, 1989).