Hadassah: The Women's Zionist Organization

From its founding in 1912, Hadassah advocated a program of social feminism that addresses women of all backgrounds.

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The following article focuses on the formative years of Hadassah, from its founding in 1912 through 1933. It is reprinted with permission from the American Jewish Historical Society's American Jewish Desk Reference: The Ultimate One Volume Reference to the Jewish Experience in America, published by Random House.

"The Time Was Ripe"

When seven women concluded on February 14, 1912 "…that the time is ripe for a large organization of women Zionists" and issued an invitation to interested friends "to attend a meeting for the purpose of discussing the feasibility of forming an organization" to promote Jewish institutions in Palestine and foster Jewish ideals, they scarcely anticipated their resolve would lead to the creation of American Jews' largest mass-membership organization.

Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, became the most popular American Jewish organization within a short span of years, maintaining that preeminence to this day. It also is the most successful American women's volunteer organization, enrolling more women and raising more funds than any other national women's volunteer organization

The First Meeting

hadassahThe first meeting drew over thirty female Zionists to the vestry room of New York City's Temple Emanu-El on February 24, 1912. At the meeting's conclusion, almost two-thirds of those in attendance were elected officers or directors, suggesting the leadership opportunities Hadassah would offer women. Henrietta Szold, at age fifty-two, was the senior leader, deeply committed to Zionism as a political and moral movement of Jewish renewal.

Hadassah recruited a leadership cadre from women of Eastern European, German, and Sephardic backgrounds. Many were native born college-educated American Jews, both young and middle aged. Their level of formal learning was unusual for women in this period and signified their cultural aspirations. Hadassah enrolled members from varied socioeconomic backgrounds, but many were working women--teachers, stenographers, shopgirls, and garment workers.

Hadassah focused on women's health issues, reflecting the social feminism of settlement house work. In January 1913, with 122 members and $542 in dues collected, Hadassah agreed to support a nurse in Palestine for two years. Emma Gottheil's sister, Eva Leon, who had worked with Jerusalem midwives, raised $5000 from wealthy Chicago non-Zionists for a second nurse. Two weeks later, Rose Kaplan and Rachel (Rae) Lamb sailed for Jerusalem, where they established Hadassah Nurses Settlement, a first step to "bring order to that land of chaos."

Growth and Conflict

The decision signaled organization growth. After Leon reported that the nurses needed guidance, Hadassah created a Palestine Advisory Committee in New York City to supervise them, setting an important precedent that policy decisions were to be made in America.

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Deborah Dash Moore

Deborah Dash Moore is the Director of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies and a Frederick G.L. Huetwell Professor of History at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan.