“The month which was turned unto them from sorrow to joy, and from mourning into a good day.”
As the Jewish world prepares for Purim’s festivities and joy, I want to recognize that 107 years ago today, Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, was founded.
Henrietta Szold, Hadassah’s founder, was an American Jewish Zionist. Szold was highly educated in Jewish studies and worked as the first editor for the Jewish Publication Society, a position she maintained for over 23 years. In 1933, she immigrated to what was then known as Palestine, and helped run Youth Aliyah, an organization that rescued 30,000 Jewish children from Nazi Europe. Szold, known as the “Mother of all children”, had no children of her own, and died at age 84 in the same Hadassah Hospital she helped to build in Jerusalem. The day of her death, the 30th of the Hebrew month of Shvat, is commemorated each year in Israel as the country’s Mother’s Day.
Hadassah is one of the largest international Jewish organizations, advocating on behalf of women’s rights, religious autonomy and U.S.-Israel diplomacy. In Israel, the organization supports health education and research, women’s initiatives, schools and programs for underprivileged youth, and is the founder of the Hadassah Medical Center, a leading research hospital renowned for its inclusion of and treatment for all religions and races in Jerusalem.
As a lead example for promoting women’s rights and education, Hadassah bears the Hebrew name of Queen Esther (Esther was her Persian name) and is considered one of seven Jewish women that had the title “prophet”. Esther is reputed among the strongest Jewish woman leaders, risking herself to assure Jewish continuity and survival of the Jewish community of Persia from destruction.
Prior to founding Hadassah, Szold and her co-partners formed small study groups for women, all named after Biblical Jewish women that left their mark on our Jewish history and set an example for women.
If Henrietta Szold and her founding partners were alive today, they would certainly be proud of Israeli women’s achievements. They would see Israeli women in leading positions across all fields and institutions. Whereas Henrietta Szold had to beg her way into the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and was eventually allowed in with the provision that she not seek ordination, today Orthodox women, along with those of more liberal streams of Judaism are ordained as religious leaders, and they can be found serving in academia, the courts, and in tech, science and business.
Right now, it is election season in Israel as we head to vote for our 21st parliament. These are stormy days, as any election period can be. Negating one another becomes the common language, coming from the left and the right, from secular and observant Jews, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, Jews and Muslims.
Israeli women can and should take pride in their achievements, but in one area we still have a long way to go. So while, yes, we had our first woman prime minister, Golda Meir, in 1969, we have slid back some in recent years. Meir, Israel’s only woman prime minister, was one of the few women heads of states in her day, and even today, she remains among the few. But after such a promising start for women in leadership, in Israel’s outgoing parliament only 29 percent of seats are held by women—although our current goal this election is to hold 50 percent of those seats.
Beyond telling the story of one brave woman, her will and her strength, the book of Esther enfolds our entire Jewish history –one that too often repeats itself with existential threats. As before and ever since, only Jewish unity, coupled with determination and resilience manages to turn the wheel in ancient Persia, “The month which was turned unto them from sorrow to joy, and from mourning into a good day.” ( Esther 9:22)
The Book of Esther may be read as a fairytale, or better, with all seriousness. It is the book of our collective history, shared destiny and one eternal principal, guiding us through harsh times as a torch that lights our way. Only when standing united can we prevail; only when our forces are joined, shall we survive.
The week of Purim is a week of joy. But this week, 12 new orphans joined Israel’s growing bereaved family, where their father, Rabbi Achiad Ettinger died of his injuries, a day after being shot by a Palestinian terrorist during an attack in the northern West Bank. For the Ettinger family, days of joy turned onto days of mourning, as for the family of IDF soldier Gal Keidan, only 19 years old when stabbed by the same terrorist. Keidan, a gifted musician will no longer play his music, it stopped forever on the week of Purim.
We send our prayers for IDF soldier, Alexander Dvorsky, wounded at the same vicious attack and still in serious condition, and to the families of those left bereft by these acts of violence.
I can only hope that our politicians will read through the Book of Esther with careful attention, remember past sacrifices and our desired future, and turn these stormy election days—as we turn the days of the month of Purim—into a good day, a better tomorrow.
Vice President, Director, JCC Israel Center