Letter from New York: Practical Revolutionaries
We all know how Hadassah helped women and children in Israel,but what about its contributions to women—and Judaism—in America?
As a young married woman living in Kew Gardens, New York, more than 50 years ago, Bernice S. Tannenbaum fell in love with Hadassah. She didn’t intend to.
As a courtesy to her husband, an ardent Zionist, Tannenbaum attended a meeting to create a new chapter in Kew Gardens. The meeting was addressed by Bertha Hamerman, a member of the national board. “She was the kind of Zionist leader I hadn’t met before,” recalls Tannenbaum, then an English literature teacher. “Bertha made a dramatic and compelling case for an Israel not yet born and for a new Hadassah chapter. I was blown away!
“When she concluded her remarks, she pointed her finger at each young woman in the room, designating their future role in the new unit. That’s how I got my first job in Hadassah; when Bertha turned to me, she said, ‘You be the president.’ Perhaps, I was looking for an intangible something or a new journey in life and I didn’t know it yet, but I said, ‘Yes.'”
Leadership classes at the national office followed. Tannenbaum was named by national Hadassah Speakers Bureau Fellow for 1953. That summer, she was sent to Israel for five weeks of intensive study of Hadassah projects and institutions and was permitted to accept a minimum of 50 speaking assignments all over the United States the following year.
After serving in many demanding portfolios, Tannenbaum was elected national president in 1976. She characterizes national leaders of that period as energetic and passionate. “They thought of themselves as professional volunteers who believed in learning the how-to as well as the intellectual and historic background of each task,” she notes. “They did not realize that they were developing themselves as they were developing Hadassah.”
Today, 98 years since its founding, Hadassah is the largest Jewish women’s organization in the United States, modeling Jewish identity, activism, leadership and camaraderie. Its fund-raising and membership dues contribute to an array of services including two hospital campuses in Jerusalem, Youth Aliyah centers, an international arm and a foundation. “We are a force to be reckoned with,” says current national president Nancy Falchuk.
If Hadassah had only had a staggering impact on creating and sustaining Israel’s medical infrastructure, dayenu —it would have been enough of an achievement—but it has also played a revolutionary role in the lives of American Jewish women. As Hadassah mobilized women like Tannenbaum across the country to work for causes they believed in, it encouraged them to develop social networks and to educate and empower themselves.
“Hadassah influenced the concept of self-worth for its members,” says Mira Katzburg-Yungman, professor of history at Tel Aviv’s Open University of Israel and author of Hadassah, Practice and Ideology, 1948-1956 (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and American Women Zionists: Hadassah and the Rebirth of Israel (in Hebrew from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; to be published in English in 2011). “It gave them…strength that they could make their mark on the growing life of the Yishuv and later on Israel as well as on various issues concerning America. Hadassah was for its activists on all levels a channel for their Jewish, American and feminine identity…beginning at a time when it was not accustomed for most American Jewish women to work out of their homes.”
The Hadassah archives are filled with profiles of pioneers who set the stage for Hadassah’s 275,000- strong membership today. Henrietta Szold, Hadassah’s icon, was a teacher, writer, scholar, social worker, administrator, Zionist political leader and secretary-editor of the Jewish Publication Society until she made aliya in 1920. During her first trip to Mandate Palestine, with her mother, Sophia, in 1909, she saw the desperate need for medical care and adopted her mother’s suggestion that the study group she belonged to (part of the Daughters of Zion, organized after the first Zionist Congress in 1897), turn its attention to practical health work in Mandate Palestine. In 1912, at age 51, she and a small group of women formed the Hadassah Chapter of the Daughters of Zion. Its purpose, according to an early pamphlet, was to foster Jewish ideals, promote Zionism and “establish a system of District Visiting Nursing” in Palestine. Within a year, Hadassah had raised funds to send two nurses to Jerusalem.
“The practical aspect was a real magnet, something anybody could sink their teeth into,” says Susan Woodland, director of the Hadassah Archives, housed at the Center for Jewish History in New York.
Szold and others toured the United States, recruiting members and raising funds, catapulting her group to national status with an enviable treasury. In fact, the male-dominated Federation of American Zionists (later, the Zionist Organization of America) wanted to consolidate all monies raised by American Zionist organizations, but Hadassah refused to cede its financial autonomy. In Palestine, Szold oversaw Hadassah’s medical efforts and by the mid-1930s, made Youth Aliyah a priority, rescuing thousands of youngsters from the Nazis and arranging entrance papers to Palestine with the British government. Hasia Diner, professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, calls Youth Aliyah Hadassah’s greatest achievement. “Every child saved was directly due to [the women’s] energy and foresight.”
Historian Jonathan D. Sarna places Hadassah’s founding in the context of the revitalization of Judaism in the United States at the end of the 19th century. “In response to the manifold crises of the day, particularly assimilation and immigration, the responsibility for ‘saving Judaism’ came increasingly to rest on the shoulders of women,” he writes in American Judaism: A History (Yale University Press). “The home, the synagogue, and philanthropic social work services came increasingly to be seen as part of the woman’s domain.” Szold was convinced that American Jewish women “need Zionism as much as those Jews do who need a physical home.”
“By working to strengthen Jewish life in…Israel,” Sarna writes, “she hoped that women’s own Judaism, and American Judaism generally, would be strengthened and renewed.”
Katzburg-Yungman cites role models from the 1930s and 1940s like Rose Jacobs, Rose Halprin and Judith Epstein. Jacobs became acting head of the organization after Szold’s departure. By 1940, she had made her 14th sea trip to Palestine despite dangerous wartime conditions. During Jacobs’s second term as national president, Hadassah initiated building the Rothschild–Hadassah University Hospital on Mount Scopus. Halprin, scion of a fiercely Zionist family, lived with her family in Jerusalem between 1934 and 1939 and acted as liaison between Hadassah in the United States and Palestine, sending back newsletter articles, by ship, that were read by members. She was national president when the hospital was cut off from the rest of Jerusalem during the War of Independence, helped relocate it temporarily and guided the decision to open the Hebrew University–Hadassah Medical School, the first such school in Israel. As a delegate to the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, she participated in national and international negotiations leading to the establishment of the state.
Epstein, who also fought for Israel’s creation, traveled across America, bringing insights about the international scene to Hadassah members.
“Zionist education was always part of Hadassah’s mission,” says Woodland, “For many, that education was their only connection to Zionism.” Hadassah’s commitment to instilling Zionism in Jewish youth led to its support of Young Judaea and, more recently, programs like Birthright Israel.
Hadassah’s founders were predominantly American-born of Eastern European parents; they were mostly well-educated and married with grown children. (Szold, who was single, was an exception.) Diner notes that Marian Greenberg, who headed Hadassah’s Youth Aliyah program, referred to herself as Mrs. David Greenberg, though she was a full-time volunteer and traveled the world at her own expense.
“Even when the women’s rights movement was strong, Hadassah never called itself a feminist organization because that would have been unrespectable,” says Diner. “But that doesn’t mean the women didn’t take part in power politics—and played the game well. Hadassah was always a highly political organization…using the cloak of respectability skillfully to tackle important issues.”
Hadassah condemned McCarthyism, for instance, even when male-led organizations, such as the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League, did not take a stand, Diner says. In 2002, it spearheaded a successful campaign against Oxford University academics who called for a boycott of Israeli universities.
The success of Hadassah has been due in part because its members did not threaten traditional structures, says Diner. “They were women doing women’s work…. They had teas, luncheons, fashion shows. They emphasized the role of mother.” Within that context, she notes, they “helped shape the national and international community and politics.”
The political and community-building work abroad had an impact on American women at home, says Judith Rosenbaum, director of public history at the Jewish Women’s Archive in Boston. “It demonstrated that women were capable of building something from the ground up and supporting mammoth projects.” Today, Hadassah is poised to open the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Tower, a $318-million medical center that is the organization’s largest building project in 50 years.
After the Holocaust, when American Jewry saw the importance of participating in national and global politics, Hadassah, too, broadened its scope, working with civic groups and political coalitions. “Hadassah took up every liberal cause of the postwar period: desegregation, civil liberties, separation of church and state, the genocide convention,” notes Diner.
“Hadassah brought to light that women’s activism is central to the American Jewish community,” adds Rosenbaum.
Historians and Hadassah leaders point out that the organization continued to grow partly because it adapted to new realities. Ironically, the women’s movement represented a hurdle. “In the 1980s, women were embarrassed to say they volunteered,” says Falchuk. “People would respond, ‘Gee, you could get paid for that.'” In response, Hadassah created evening and special-interest groups for professionals and began advocating for issues like reproductive rights. The Hadassah Foundation, established in 1998, supports organizations that benefit women and girls in the United States and Israel.
Falchuk proudly points to both her daughter and daughters-in-law as examples of Hadassah’s ability to identify with contemporary women— whether through Hadassah International, which has connected people in over 34 countries to Hadassah’s work in Israel (see story, page 30), or Hadassah’s Morningstar Commission, which investigates how Jewish women are portrayed in media.
Hadassah has overcome its share of obstacles. “It’s powerful to think that we started without Internet and…business plans or even knowing the lay of land,” says Falchuk. “We have displayed ‘stick-to-it-iveness’ through tragedy, war, famine and competition from other organizations.”
The Hadassah–University Hospital on Mount Scopus was built during the Depression, she notes, and the Hadassah–Hebrew University Medical Center at Ein Kerem was built after Mount Scopus became inaccessible. Though Hadassah has suffered losses in the past year from the financial crisis and investments with Bernard Madoff, Falchuk stresses these are “blips on the radar screen. This is just one piece of a long history…. We were already positioned to restructure and now we are in recovery.”
Hadassah will consider supporting any issue of import to its membership, says Falchuk. As a nurse and a young leader in Boston, she petitioned national leadership to foster a partnership between American and Israeli nurses; the group established the first clinical master’s program in nursing in Israel. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in September 2005, many Jewish families in New Orleans found themselves without homes even months later. Before Passover, national board member Barbara Pailet turned to Hadassah for help gathering haggadot, Seder plates, matza covers and more—for a Seder of 200. “You cannot imagine how impressed I was with box after box that began to arrive from all over the country,” she wrote in a letter to the national board. “With each delivery there were notes…that thanked us for allowing them to help….”
Like others who join, former national president Marlene Post was looking for a “place to belong” in the Long Island community to which she had moved in the 1960s. “I connected to the women,” she recalls. “And then I became interested in and passionate about the issues.”
“Being part of a voluntary association, making friends,” Diner says, “are not inconsequential factors in…good mental health and rootedness.”
Although Post was raising her family Jewishly, she wanted to learn more. Through study groups and meetings, she developed pride in her identity, traveled to Israel for the first time and marched to free Soviet Jews. She included her family in all activities. “The issues transformed us from a nice Jewish family to an activist family interested in Jewish and Israeli issues. When [Natan] Sharansky was freed our family celebrated…. It was like we did it.”
Hadassah’s grassroots membership remains its pride. “We are not a monolithic organization,” says Falchuk. “We represent the spectrum of American Jewish women. Because everyone comes from a different place, Hadassah is a safe place to learn. We use our creativity to make things happen.” H