Interview: Bernice S. Tannenbaum
Eight of Hadassah’s 25 national presidents are still with us, but none of them has a broader sweep of the Hadassah century than Bernice S. Tannenbaum. Having joined the organization in 1944, she has been active for two-thirds of Hadassah’s history, and the women she cites as mentors, such as Rose Halprin and Judith Epstein, give her a grasp of almost the entire Hadassah journey. Looking back on the history she has seen and the organization as it is today, Hadassah’s 16th president offers a unique perspective on a continuing saga.
Q. What values or lessons did you take away from observing the leadership of Hadassah when you first joined?
A. Long before I became a member of the national board, I learned about the inspiring role of Rose Halprin as the president of Hadassah and as a brilliant Zionist leader. She had a remarkable history. She served twice as president [1932-34 and 1947-52]. She became dominant in the Zionist world of males and was not afraid to demonstrate her leadership.
Judith Epstein [president 1937-39 and 1943-47] just lit up Hadassah. She had an innate ability to draw people to her. She had a magnificent voice and a warm smile; I was in awe of her. In 1960, I was asked to cochair a national convention in Denver with Judith, who told me that I was not allowed to do any of the important things, like planning the program. I was in charge of making sure there were enough chairs, I guess. But she ruled in a totally charming and effective manner.
Q. How did you start volunteering at the national level?
A. In 1953, while still president of the Long Island Region, I was called to the national office and informed that I had been chosen as National Speaker’s Bureau Fellow of the Year. This meant spending five weeks in Israel with Hadassah staff and volunteers and making a personal commitment to accept more than 50 speaking engagements. I began traveling around the U.S. on this mission for a year. Because I was new and inexperienced, the speaker’s bureau sent me to places to which no other national board members would go. It was good practice.
Q. How were you picked for the top leadership?
A. I became president of the Long Island Region, after serving as president of the Kew Gardens Chapter [in Queens, New York]. This was a major lesson for me. I learned that I could maintain my life’s structure, manage my home, keep my husband and son happy, despite the fact that I had responsibilities that included major travel. I was able to stand on my feet and speak and people would listen and often act on the message.
Q. What was your first “I am a Zionist” moment?
A. It wasn’t so much a moment as a process. Through his work with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, my husband brought home well-known Israelis, some of the true stars of the university. They sat around our dinner table. They were brilliant men. There I was, listening and participating, and over time I became a part of it. When I joined Hadassah, I did not know I would be spending the rest of my life in Hadassah.
Q. What are your proudest Zionist moments?
A. The first was in 1948, when Israel became a state. As a young woman, I stood outside the Jewish Agency building and cried. I knew that day was very important in my life and it became even more so as time went on.
Later, during my Hadassah presidency, I was among some 25 guests Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin invited to join him in greeting President Carter on the field at Ben-Gurion airport. It was a brilliant sight—the red carpet thrown on the tarmac and the two leaders standing in close embrace. After welcoming the president ‘from the eternal City of David, the capital of Israel, the indivisible Jerusalem,’ Begin, holding hands with President Carter, marched down the tarmac, introducing each of us by name and title. When it was my turn, President Carter said, ‘No need to introduce Hadassah or its leaders to me. I know Hadassah leaders very well.’
A short time later, I flew to Washington, D.C. The White House lawn was jammed with people who came to celebrate the signing of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. After Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat signed three versions of the treaty, President Carter added his signature as witness. That night, Jews and Egyptians broke bread together and the first real steps toward peaceful coexistence were taken.
Q. When did you assume an official Zionist role?
A. In 1982, after my presidency, I was elected chair of the World Zionist Organization, American Section. In this position, I presided over a body of Zionist leaders representing all the Zionist groups in the U.S. I served for two terms [10 years]. I was also a member of the W.Z.O. Executive representing the U.S. during that period.
Q. Long before you were president, you had untraditional ideas that you would implement only in later years.
A. After my presidency, I proposed that Hadassah create an international arm and include men as members with its central concern the Hadassah Medical Organization. To me, it was urgent to bring as many people into the Hadassah family as we could.
I had been meeting these people at international conferences and had the feeling that we had something to offer them and that they had a new role to play with Hadassah. I went to London and Paris, then Germany, and began to create groups. Many members of the national board thought it might be an impossible dream to become international overnight, but now we have a global body as well as a national one.
Q. What is the most important characteristic that distinguishes Hadassah from other Zionist organizations?
A. I would say “stick-to-it-ness” or focused persistence. We have always been willing to dream a little bit, and then do everything to make those dreams come true. And for the most part, we were successful. If someone came with an idea that was outlandish for the time—like going international or creating a foundation to advance the lives of women and girls—it would be evaluated in a room filled with wise and experienced women willing to take a chance on the future.
Q. Did your personal life and Hadassah duties ever come into conflict?
A. I lost my first husband at a young age. After seven years, I was on the verge of remarrying. This gentleman wanted to get married immediately, but I told him he was crazy because I had been elected to become the next national president of Hadassah, with a huge workload, major time commitments and extended travel. He said something very special: ‘I will go wherever you go and it will be a delight for me.’ And he did! You think that part of your life is over and it isn’t. Each new day brings new hopes, new challenges and new beginnings.
My large and fabulous family has been there for me and for each other all our lives. Now with four generations and eight great-grandchildren to cherish and admire, the future is bright with tomorrow’s dreams.