Old Values, New Blood: Hadassah 2.0
Ever since The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook: Daily Meals for the Contemporary Jewish Kitchen (Rizzoli/Universe) was published last year, I have spent many afternoons and evenings leading cooking demonstrations for Hadassah groups across the Northeast and beyond.
As a first-time author, I have been grateful for the built-in network of audience members, and I have met hundreds of dynamic and committed women along the way. But as much fun as I have cooking with all these groups—it has been the unexpected highlight of publishing a book—as a woman who recently turned 30, I am very aware that, in most cases, I am the youngest person in the room. Sometimes nearly by half.
So when I walked into the cooking demonstration room for Hadassah’s Meira Chapter in New York City, I was surprised to find a group of women roughly my age chatting while they sipped from glasses of white wine. Speaking with them further after the demonstration, I discovered that this group was filled with vibrant young women from diverse Jewish backgrounds—exactly the type of ladies I imagine Hadassah was originally founded by a century ago.
It turns out that Meira (https://meira.hadassah.org) represents a growing community of women in the New York Metropolitan area as well across the United States who are reinvigorating existing Hadassah chapters or founding new ones that specifically cater to a younger membership. To women who, like me, have never quite imagined themselves as Hadassah material. (I became a life member last year when my mother signed me up in honor of the publishing of the cookbook and my birthday.)
The leaders of these chapters, all of whom are in their twenties to forties, recognize that women their age are in the middle of some of the busiest and most unpredictable years of their lives. They may be juggling graduate school, careers and relationships while keeping up with their social circles and Facebook. Others are raising young children even as they care for aging parents. As a result, they are plugged in, on the move and seeking a different type of engagement and programming than women at other stages of life.
“Our members’ free time is drastically limited,” said Alissa Butterfass, 40, president of Hadassah’s Young Women of Westchester group (www.hadassah.org/westchester). “They are looking for programs that offer them something they can’t do on their own or with their families.”
Luckily, these younger chapters are happy to oblige, planning events geared toward younger members, and using social media like Facebook and Twitter to spread the word about upcoming programs. Call them next generation Hadassah or Hadassah 2.0—just don’t call them “your grandmother’s Hadassah group.”
After spending time with Meira members, I was curious to discover just what inspires a contemporary, overscheduled young woman to join a 100-year-old organization? The answers are as diverse as the members themselves.
For Alicia Post, 33, a public relations consultant and copresident of Meira, continuity is key. “I am a fifth-generation Hadassah member,” she said. “It feels meaningful to be next in a lineage of what I like to call the ‘original Jewish divas.’” Post is such a fan of Hadassah’s history that she started a collection of Hadassah pins.
Butterfass, who works part time as a senior marketing manager, points to her parents as a primary reason for getting involved. “My mom and dad met at Tel Yehudah [the Young Judaea summer camp], so I’m literally a product of the organization.”
But other Hadassah leaders, like Meira’s copresident Gillie Nevel, 31, are first-generation members who came to the organization looking for new friendships and a unique entry into Jewish life. “I joined as a way to meet people and contribute to my community,” Nevel said. With Hadassah’s young membership base on the rise (nearly 20 percent of new life members are between 17 and 45), she is not alone.
When it comes to planning events, noted Butterfass, “our board looks around the room and says, ‘O.K., what would we want to do? What would get us excited to come to a meeting?” The result is a wide variety of events from hands-on volunteering opportunities to health and wellness programs to cocktail parties and other social gatherings.
Young Women of Westchester partners with a local Head Start day care to run arts, fitness and environmental programming for local kids. The group also plans spa days, pool parties and art gallery events as well as Jewish educational programs.
“We recently invited a speaker to explain the different aspects of the mikve and help demystify the ritual,” Butterfass said. Among the events she helped coordinate in the past year was a Chocolate for Charity party at 5th Avenue Chocolatiere in Scarsdale, New York. Participants learned about cocoa beans as well as the chocolate-making process and got to try their hand at making molded confections.
Other groups agree that incorporating a mix of eclectic events is key to meeting the unique needs of their membership. For example, the Shatil Chapter in New York City (www.hadassah.org/shatil) held fashion show fundraisers where members modeled clothing designs from CAbi, Carol Anderson by Invitation, and poker nights, with instructors to help those new to the game. “During the show, we pretended to be the models on Project Runway, and viewers cheered everyone on,” recalled Shatil copresident Shari Schlager Kluger, 36.
The recently reinvigorated Young Women’s Circle of Brooklyn (www.hadassah.org/brooklyn) holds Zumba gym events and wine tastings featuring wines from Israeli vineyards.
Post, meanwhile, said that in addition to more conventional programs like book clubs and a recent gala for breast cancer awareness, Meira occasionally hosts “purely social” bar nights, open to both women and men.
Of course, even with the most exciting programs planned, getting people to attend events remains a challenge—especially with so many competing personal and professional commitments on the calendar. “There are only so many nights a week that someone can go out,” Butterfass said.
Meanwhile, Hadassah chapters, like many social and community groups, tend to age naturally along with their members. Shatil, for example, was originally founded two decades ago for women in their twenties to thirties, but today the membership skews closer to thirty to fifty. As Schlager Kluger explained, “the Meira Chapter was actually founded in response to Shatil’s growing up.”
Despite the current trend of young American Jews looking outside the established Jewish community for philanthropic focuses and distancing themselves from Zionism and Israel—including Hadassah’s established mission of connecting to Israel, building Jewish community and fundraising for the Hadassah Medical Organization—many of these younger groups stress the importance of staying connected to their roots.
“We want to be a part of Hadassah’s fundraising and build on what came before us,” said Daphne Schneider, 29, copresident of the Young Women’s Circle of Brooklyn and whose mother is a long-time member and leader of Hadassah’s Brooklyn Region. “They are passing along the torch of leadership, and it is up to us to accept it.”