A Model Woman: A Remembrance as We Approach Yom Kippur - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
A Model Woman: A Remembrance as We Approach Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur, 10th day of Tishrei, Oct. 4–5, begins tonight with the kol nidre.

There were news items last week regarding illegals in New York, who may have gotten there by way of chartered buses from Texas and Florida but — by definition, if they are clandestine — could have hitch-hiked or ridden the rails, as other migrants — internal ones sometimes known as “hoboes” — made their way across the continent in the 1930s.

If so, as an old newspaper editor I would have assigned a bright and eager young man — maybe even a lassie — to check it out. Phone call:

“Chief, I’m in Corona and there’re buses here bound for Florida. Word is illegals are being offered to ride down and take jobs cleaning up the hurricane disaster.”

“So, you can walk up the street and buy a ticket to the Mets game or get on the bus and find out if there’s a story down there.”

“Not sure I —”

“Sure you’re sure. You get on the bus or you get fired.”

“Okay, Chief, call you from Tampa.”

“Attaboy, and when you’re down there, ring Mr. Thornberry; he’ll give you the lowdown.”

It is indicative of the state of American journalism that no one had the reaction that came to me even after years of not barking out assignments from my desk near the office of the stout, clear-eyed Bob McManus, a New York Post legend in his own time who, in his old age, contributes must-read pieces to the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research’s indispensable City Journal.

The fact is that not only would this, if it checked out, be a great story, but it would also offer a much-needed reminder of the tremendous role voluntarism plays, even in these narcissistic times, in keeping America free and good.

A typical attitude toward immigrants in American history is to disparage them as dirty, smelly, uncouth, crime-prone, unlearned undesirables. A contrary typical attitude is that they are a welcome addition to our brain power (Enrico Fermi), our cultural pre-eminence (Billy Wilder), and our political and military genius (Carl Schurz); and, taken in toto, these immigrants are an asset to our economic needs and development, as steel and auto workers, fruit pickers, and doctors and software engineers, as well as orchestra conductors and baseball players.

Another interesting thing about the American attitude toward immigration is that it has had beneficial copycat effects, at least in Israel. When emigration, mainly from Russia and central Europe, began to bring poor, often unskilled, and frequently uneducated Jews to Palestine at the turn of the last century, philanthropists saw that they were exchanging a cold desolate place for a hot desolate place and were as ill-equipped to survive in the promised land as they were in the one they left behind.

The motto by which Henrietta Szold lived was that there is always a concrete solution; if it is no good, then find a better one.

Henrietta Szold, as a middle-class American daughter of a Hungarian immigrant rabbi, appreciated from an early age the worth of voluntary educational and social work. On a visit to Jerusalem and environs, she saw the ravages of ill-health and poverty as spelling doom for the Zionist project, to which she herself was sympathetic but not yet fully committed. She decided to apply the skills she had picked up through helping immigrants to her own native Baltimore through the creation and management of vocational and academic schools, health clinics, and social programs.

Indefatigable and persuasive, unable to comprehend the word “impossible” or the expression “can’t be done,” Miss Szold, despite her own genteel and comfortable upbringing, proved to be one of the leaders and role models of what, as we well know, grew into one of the most amazing — should we say miraculous? — pioneer enterprises of the 20th century: the state of Israel.

Not content to lead the way in educational, medical, and social services in a land that needed to build them from the ground up, Miss Szold founded an organization, Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, in 1909. It is the most effective pro-Israel charity in the world, with aid and teaching missions on every continent. It sponsors state-of-the-art medical research and care in Israel while maintaining its social mission to care for the immigrants the Jewish state continues to welcome.

Interestingly enough, Miss Szold did not live to see the founding of Israel. During the years leading up to the partition of the British mandate in Palestine, she belonged to a minority Zionist faction that favored a bi-national state, a kind of federal solution with the Hashemites in Jordan that would have guaranteed autonomy in the respective sectors, or cantons. It was an idea, drawn from the American and Swiss political traditions, whose time never came. Though the bi-national solution has been revived from time to time, perhaps most thoughtfully by the biblical (and Quranic) scholar André Chouraqui (who also served as deputy mayor of Jerusalem), it suffered from a basic problem: No Arab will risk his life by even agreeing that it might be worth talking about.

Revered in Israel, Miss Szold is of course known to the tens of thousands in America who belong and contribute to Hadassah (including Hadassah Associates, the men’s branch of the organization), but otherwise she is not as famous as such philanthropists as Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller, or, in our time, Bill and Melinda Gates. Actually, there are many, many more — philanthropy is best kept discreet, even anonymous. I myself had forgot all about Miss Szold, if ever I knew anything, until just recently I read a beautifully written portrait published in the December 1960 issue of Commentary.

The piece is an elegant, fascinating account of an exceptional woman by one no less exceptional in her field, Midge Decter, of blessed memory. In under 6,000 words, her life and work jump off the page, and their impact on Miss Szold’s own time — and ours — strikes one with the kind of “How could I not have known this?” that was so typical of Miss Decter’s writings and even of the less brilliant essays that regularly were published in the magazine edited by her husband, Norman Podhoretz.

What should have been known is not only the inspirational figure that Miss Decter evoked so well, the “tiny, exquisitely gnome-like, white-haired lady who worked for eighteen hours a day until she was in her eighties,” but that Henrietta Szold was the antidote to the liberated woman, enslaved by her anger, whom Miss Decter, better than anyone else, would dissect and strive to derail from the follies wrought by off-the-rails feminism.

And beyond the example that Henrietta Szold — and Midge Deter — offers our gender war–torn society, how might we not benefit from the example of such a social philanthropic enterprise as the one she created? If Hadassah were in America, would we be having such a destructive debate over immigration? The motto by which Henrietta Szold lived was that there is always a concrete solution; if it is no good, then find a better one.

Indeed, we know this; it is astonishing, reading about Hadassah’s origins, that it does not hit us that in every problem our society confronts, there is a solution in the determined application of philanthropic effort. It is so common that we do not even think about it; but, from health services to fire departments, from schools to security, what are we but a “what works, works” mix of private and public effort? This is a lesson we cannot afford to neglect.

Whether it really happened or was some sort of gag to counter the gag of sending illegals to Martha’s Vineyard, the idea of sending new arrivals to our shores to help fix Florida is in the best vein of American can-do. Of course, we must police our borders; until — and even after — we find the political will to do so, we must find useful things for people to do while turning them into Americans.

At The American Spectator we have thought about this issue, as who has not. Better to have been inspired by Henrietta Szold than by glib sarcasm, but at least we tried. The point in any case remains: Procedures and modalities can be worked out, but it is not outlandish to tell people: “If you want in, you must give. And if you give, we will help you stay.” (READ MORE from Roger Kaplan: Resist the Invasion, Win the Midterms)

As Midge Decter writes, in reference to the desperate years when Zionism was struggling in a land made wretched by centuries of neglect and abysmal poverty, in a time of war clouds and threats of genocide: “In a contemporary world dominated by the grandeur of social forces and historic movements, [Henrietta Szold] was afflicted with the wild-eyed conviction that people move forward by placing one foot in front of another.” She means — need one say it? — that this little lady from Baltimore was both a dreamer and a hard-nosed realist.

It is Erev Yom Kippur now, and time to lay down my pen — stop my keyboard, rather — and think of sin and atonement, nationwide and personal. The two are related, and we know that. A good way to begin is listen to the cantor’s words and let the mind stray toward a few thoughts for those who told us — a determined philanthropist, a writer, a parent — to remember to place one foot in front of another.

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