Henrietta Szold: travel and transformation

Henrietta Szold, "dressed to explore the countryside of Palestine."

Courtesy of Hadassah Archives/American Jewish Historical Society.

Today Henrietta Szold would have been 150 years old.  Exactly 75 years ago today, her birthday was celebrated by Zionists throughout the U.S.  There was a national radio address, parties hosted by local Hadassah chapters, and Shabbat sermons dedicated to her all over the country.  To read more about this remarkable event, visit This Week in History.

There is so much one could possibly say about Henrietta Szold.  After all, she is arguably the most influential American Zionist in history.  Her accomplishments include founding Hadassah, the largest Zionist organization in the U.S., developing the infrastructure for medical and social services in Israel, relocating Jewish children from Nazi Europe to Israel, and so much more.  Check out her encyclopedia article and the Women of Valor exhibit to learn more.

Today I was reading Jewish Women in Travel on jwa.org, and I was struck by the effect that travel had on Henrietta Szold's life and work.  In 1880, Szold visited Europe with her father. During a visit to the Alt-Neu Shul in Prague, the oldest synagogue in Europe, Szold observed that women were completely segregated from the services. Only a small window, a small beam of light, connected the women's gallery to the service. One woman stood by this window, relaying to the others what was going on below. There, Henrietta Szold realized her purpose in life -- to act as that woman did and serve as an intermediary between the segregated worlds of men and women.

Almost 30 years later, Szold visited Palestine with her mother.  The suffering and poverty she witnesses among Jews and Arabs in Palestine inspired her to create Hadassah, a national grassroots organization that focused on fundraising to bring healthcare, nurses, and hospitals to Palestine. Hadassah is now one of the largest American Jewish membership organizations.

I particularly love the story about Szold's experience at the Alt-Neu Shul. While I believe that epiphanies can happen anywhere, the experience of travel -- of seeing worlds so different from your own -- can be be absolutely transformative. Szold's story has got me thinking about transformative travel experiences of my own.

In college, I studied abroad in Spain.  I toured the city of Toledo with my program, and part of that tour was to a synagogue.  I had been looking forward to this, but was surprised to find that the synagogue, the Sinagoga de Santa Maria La Blanca, hardly seemed like a synagogue at all.  First of all, the building was built by Mudejar (defined as Moors working on Christian soil on non-Islamic buildings) architects, and the interior looks more like a Moorish palace than anything else. In the 15th century, after the Jews were expelled from Spain, the synagogue was turned into a church and a 16th-century Christian altarpiece remains. The tour guide pointed out the one Star of David carved into the intricate patterns in the walls -- the only symbol of Jewishness anywhere in the place. 

It felt very strange to be standing in a place heralded as a "Jewish site" by all the travel books, yet to find nothing Jewish, and no Jews.  I have never felt more alone as a Jew than at that moment, and I realized how much I took for granted living in a country that has a significant Jewish presence.  After visiting that synagogue, I bought a Star of David from a touristy Judaica shop (not run by Jews) and wore it for the rest of my travels in Spain.  Instead of inviting anti-Semitism as my parents feared, the Star invited curiosity and questions. Many of the Spaniards I encountered had never met a Jew before, and I committed myself to affirming that Jews are living and present, that we are more than just ghosts of the past.

Szold reminds us that when these transformative moments cause us to take action, we come closer to repairing the world.  As I ponder what to do with my vacation days this upcoming year, I hold on to Henrietta Szold's story.  I plan to follow in her footsteps, and travel for purpose as well as pleasure.

Do you have a transformative travel story to tell?  Please share it in the comments.

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How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "Henrietta Szold: travel and transformation." 21 December 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 30, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/szold-and-travel>.

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