From the Collections: Jewish Nurses

by Susan Woodland, Senior Archivist, American Jewish Historical Society

Jenna Weissman Joselit recently wrote a thoughtful column in The Jewish Daily Forward entitled, “Where Have All the Nurses Gone? Jews Flocked to Every Helping Profession But One.”

The column ruminates on nurses, why there have always been so few Jewish nurses, and the importance of Jewish nurses in the professional life of Henrietta Szold and the long history of Hadassah. Hadassah’s mission of practical Zionism, of course, began with 2 Jewish nurses in 1913 and continued with a medical unit in 1918 that sent American Jewish nurses and other health professionals to Palestine to heal the sick as well as to begin training local Jewish women as nurses. 

There are many links between Jenna’s column and the collections at the Center for Jewish History. First and foremost is the Hadassah archives, currently on deposit with the American Jewish Historical Society at the Center. Here can be found many of Henrietta Szold’s papers dealing with her leadership during Hadassah’s earliest days and the development of the Hadassah Medical Organization in Palestine. (View the finding aid for the Hadassah Medical Organization collection at: http://digital.cjh.org/826508). 

Hadassah led by Henrietta Szold was indeed the driving force behind the creation and funding of the American Zionist Medical Unit, which was finally permitted to sail as part of an American military convoy in the summer of 1918, as WWI was ending. Also participating in the funding for this Unit were the Joint Distribution Committee and the Federation of American Zionists (the forerunner of today’s Zionist Organization of America). For a detailed and powerful oral history recounting the trip across the Atlantic, the long journey from London to Jerusalem that summer, and the unhealthy and unsanitary conditions that these young American Jewish nurses found on their arrival, listen to the oral history recorded by one of the young nurses, Madeleine Lewin-Epstein, 40 years after the event: http://digital.cjh.org/1358275.

Henrietta Szold’s “Familiar Letters,” from which Jenna quotes, are not yet available online, but they can be viewed onsite for research by sending a request to the Center’s reference staff. Jenna wrote, “I couldn’t possibly hold a candle to the glories of Szold’s prose.” Henrietta Szold’s writing is indeed beautiful, detailed and very heartfelt. One of the deepest pleasures of researching original materials is the opportunity to discover unpublished letters, beautifully written. 

Jenna also mentions The American Jewess. You can read about The American Jewess Project undertaken by the Jewish Women’s Archive, with issues now available through their website, at: www.jwa.org/research/americanjewess.

Another Center collection in which to find information about Jewish hospitals in New York City is the UJA-Federation of New York collection, now undergoing processing by the American Jewish Historical Society thanks to generous funding from UJA-Federation of New York. Nursing-related files that have turned up so far include mostly budgetary and financial files from the Mount Sinai Hospital Training School for Nurses, 1918 to 1951, plus an intriguing folder labeled, “Salaries of Nurses and Orderlies, 1918-1919.” Within the next few years, watch for announcements of finding aids posted for this large and diverse collection.

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