Going to Hadassah: Sewing a Nation


Going to Hadassah: Sewing a Nation

Barbara Sofer

Illustration by Andy Potts.

In Connecticut, where I grew up, my mother and my Aunt Lucile were forever “going to Hadassah.” I was not sure what they did in that mysterious place. The greatest puzzle was the annual linen shower. Today, my knowledge of Hadassah history far expanded, I know that, from the 1920s onward, hundreds of Hadassah sewing circles nationwide produced linens, blankets and clothing for orphans and the Hadassah Medical Organization. Still, what did my mother do there? She didn’t know how to sew.

Throughout our extended family, Hadassah was a sacred word, and out-of-town cousins compared notes at family gatherings. When I became active in Young Judaea, the Zionist youth movement, I shared a panel with National President Rose Matzkin (1972-1976), who was from Connecticut, too. Connecticut eventually had a woman governor, but I had never met an orator and leader like Rose Matzkin. I was awestruck by Hadassah.

When I moved to Israel at the end of the 1960s, I quickly learned that Hadassah had a different meaning. On the one hand, it was beloved and familiar. Older Israelis reminisced about the pasteurized milk they had received as children and the nutrition programs that changed the face of Israel. On the other hand, Hadassah was lofty. Nearly everyone took the Hadassah standardized exam in the eighth grade to choose the right high school program. It was administered by the Hadassah Career Counseling Institute, another Hadassah first in Israel. Hadassah was also the name of the first college of technology, where you could get postsecondary education that also offered a near certain good job in fields like optometry, medical technology or graphic design. Hadassah was—and still is—a synonym for the best in medicine: treatment, research and education.

The first Jerusalem apartment I rented didn’t have heating, an oven or a phone. I spoke to my parents in Connecticut by lining up at the Central Post Office and requesting a long-distance call. But even then, in one area, Jerusalem could compete with any capital city: medicine. So many of the brilliant people I met were associated with Hadassah’s institutions. They were magnets that drew talented men and women from around the world to the city. Without Hadassah, Jerusalem would have been a quaint backwater.

I often think of the particular challenges that met the first two nurses, Rachel Landy and Rose Kaplan. With distinguished careers, they arrived in 1913 to the impoverished Ottoman Jerusalem. Their first goal was to win the confidence of skeptical Jerusalemites who suspected, not without reason, that these outside experts were missionaries. Malnourished, sickly Jerusalemites had relied on folk remedies. They treated eye disease with egg yolk, used mustard plasters. There were shocking rates of maternal and infant mortality. Despite the cultural gaps, Landy and Kaplan succeeded in saving the eyesight of 5,000 children afflicted with trachoma in 1913. They taught midwives to wash their hands.
Hadassah invested in playgrounds and schools. Hadassah’s nursing school, opened in 1918—the first school of higher education for women in Israel—preceded the Hebrew University of Jerusalem by seven years.

Hadassah’s long presence on the Street of the Prophets was, well, prophetic. In 1918, with their own elbow grease and funds from the United States, the men and women dispatched by Hadassah in the American Zionist Medical Unit created the first Hadassah hospital in the old Rothschild hospital building, which was being used as a stable. Veteran Israelis remember the innovative Seligsberg Vocational School in the same building, which later housed Hadassah College of Technology. Today, the prestigious Hadassah College of Jerusalem provides outstanding opportunities for higher education at the same location.

Israelis have relied on the dedication, creativity and professionalism of Hadassah’s medical staff in every military conflict. During the horrific terror attacks of 2000 through 2005, half the terror victims in the country were treated at Hadassah’s hospitals on Mount Scopus and at Ein Kerem. Hadassah staff has also paid the ultimate price, the object of violence by enemies of progress and healing. Even before the horrendous massacre of the 78 men and women in the Hadassah convoy in 1948, Hadassah facilities around the country had suffered from hostilities.

Today, expensive security is necessary to make the hospitals safe. But that has never deterred the effort to serve as a bridge to peace by employing and serving all segments of the population. Israelis shared the pride of the Hadassah Medical Organization’s nomination for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize.

When the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, promotes his city as an international biotechnology center, he says he’s counting on Hadassah Hospital, where patient care and research dovetail with impressive new drugs and therapies, and Hadassah College, where graduates in regular and religious tracks in biotechnology are filling modern research laboratories.

Hadassah made its mark in Israel not only in the world of advanced science. Of the five Israelis who took part in the 2012 International Athletic World Junior Championship in Spain, two are students at Hadassah-Neurim Youth Aliyah Village, and a third is a soldier who trains there. All three are from families of Ethiopian immigrants who would have been hard-pressed to support their talented children through sports programs. Like tens of thousands of immigrant youngsters before them in Youth Aliyah villages, they know they can turn to Hadassah.

Hadassah’s steadfast friendship and support through the Jewish state’s most difficult times is something Israelis count on. When, during the second intifada, hotel rooms were empty for want of brave visitors, Hadassah missions arrived undaunted by threats, war or terrorism. I get tears in my eyes when I think of the staff at a Haifa hotel applauding as the Hadassah Renaissance Mission arrived amid missile attacks during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

Hadassah members and supporters are the first to stand fast for Israel in the United States and around the world, where Hadassah International flourishes.

Here we are in 2012, a hundred years after Henrietta Szold and her fellow practical Zionists decided “the time is ripe for a large organization of women Zionists, which shall have for its purpose the promotion of Jewish institutions and enterprises in Palestine and the fostering of Jewish ideals.”

Not long ago, one of my daughters successfully came through a high-risk pregnancy with twins thanks to the guidance of Hadassah’s specialists. As we were hurried into the surgical suite for the birth of my grandchildren, I was greeted by Reuven Gelfond, the nurse in charge. Gelfond was also in charge of the Israeli operating room that was the first set up in Haiti after the devastating earthquake there in 2010. Even in the emotional turmoil of the delivery, I felt a moment of Hadassah pride. Because of Hadassah’s commitment to Israel, instead of remaining medically a third world country, Israel is able to help countries throughout the world.

I also felt relieved. If Gelfond could oversee the delivery of babies in a field tent in Port-au-Prince, I didn’t have to worry in Jerusalem.

I soon got to hold my two beautiful little granddaughters wrapped in Hadassah baby blankets. My mother had not sewn them, but I had the feeling that she was looking down from above with approval.

Date: 8/15/2012

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