Founding of Hadassah: The Women's Zionist Organization of America
On February 24, 1912, 38 women gathered at Temple Emanu-El in New York City to create a new organization called Daughters of Zion. Under the leadership of Henrietta Szold, they hoped to create "a large organization of women Zionists" devoted to "the promotion of Jewish institutions and enterprises in Palestine, and the fostering of Jewish ideals." In 1914, Daughters of Zion, was renamed Hadassah: The Women's Zionist Organization of America. Today, Hadassah describes itself as the largest voluntary women's organization and largest Jewish membership organization in the United States.
Dissatisfied by the limited opportunities for women's leadership in the Jewish world and inspired by a 1909 trip to Palestine, Szold was determined to create her own organization where women could lead in practical social service work. Szold organized her group according to strict scientific and business principles. Modeling Hadassah after the National Council of Jewish Women, founded in 1893, she adopted a system of local chapters headed by a national office, and insisted that the organization be focused on social service.
Avoiding religious and political controversy, Hadassah recruited women from all streams of Judaism and reached out to non-Zionists as well as Zionists. Stressing woman-to-woman contact on humanitarian and social feminist grounds, the organization grew quickly. From an initial roster of 38 women, the organization grew to 21,000 members in 34 chapters within its first five years. Today it claims more than 300,000 members.
Hadassah turned to health care for its first projects, sending two nurses in 1913 to create a visiting nurse service in Palestine. Hadassah nurses established the region's first pediatric and maternity clinics, and helped to eradicate trachoma. Today, Hadassah supports two major medical centers in Jerusalem, among other endeavors.
Active in health and education issues in the U.S. as well as in Israel, Hadassah has also turned to its roots by sponsoring study groups on Jewish and contemporary topics from stem cell research to Israeli women's fiction. Keeping Szold's example before them, Hadassah members continue to show that women can change the Jewish world.
To learn more about Hadassah in the United States, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.
Sources: www.hadassah.org; Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 571-583; Marlin Levin, It Takes a Dream: The Story of Hadassah (Hewlett, NY, 1997).