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Interview with Bernice Tannenbaum: Hadassah Was Involved in Women’s Strugges Before Women’s Liberati

“We were a women’s movement before women’s lib, ” said Bernice Salpeter Tannenbaum, president of Hadassah, in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on the eve of Hadassah’s 63rd national annual convention which will be held at the New York Hilton from Aug. 21-24.

Mrs. Tannenbaum, who is also a national vice-president of the American Zionist Federation and a member of the Zionist General Council of the World Zionist Organization, observed, “We don’t tell a woman what to think, but we do tell them to think.”

Born in Brooklyn, Mrs. Tannenbaum received her B.A. degree from Brooklyn College. She joined Hadassah in 1940 and was instrumental in founding the Kew Gardens Chapter of Hadassah in 1944. While living on Long Island, Mrs. Tannenbaum said, “I would drive out to a particular community and stand in front of the bank there. I would then ask people to join Hadassah. In a short period of time, I would get 10-15 names. Within a month, there would be a Hadassah chapter in that community.” In 1954, she became president of the Long Island Region.

Today’s “typical” member of the 65-year-old organization is markedly different from the woman who joined Hadassah 30-40 years ago, said Mrs. Tannenbaum, who is also a member of the executive bodies of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee and the World Jewish Congress-American Section.

She said that when she joined Hadassah several of its members had lived through the pogroms and the Holocaust and worked toward the creation of the State of Israel. Dedicated membership at that time grew out of “an emotional attachment and out of one’s roots,” she said. Now Hadassah members are generally younger–many of the top leadership posts are held by women in their early thirties–and about 75 percent of the women are college trained, according to Mrs. Tannenbaum.

SEARCHING FOR AN IDENTITY

Current members are “more demanding. They’re searching for an identity,” said the national president of the 360,000-member organization, now the largest of its kind in the world. Women remain with Hadassah because they develop a “deep sense of rooted ness, an understanding of what it means to be a Jew, and a personal relationship with Israel, that becomes a one-to-one relationship,” Mrs. Tannenbaum stated. “A woman knows that she wants to contribute to the equality of life in Israel and to make conditions better for the Jews there. When she supports a child in Youth Aliya, she knows that she’s actually taking that child perhaps out of a slum area and building his sense of ego.”

As the outlook of its membership changes, so does Hadassah’s activities and goals. Initially, the Youth Aliya program was developed as a means of saving children from Nazism, according to Mrs. Tannenbaum, who remarked that today some of these children, such as former Defense Minister Shimon Peres, have become the leaders of Israel. “When they got to Israel, they found they were really needed by the country. As a result, children who came out of traumatic backgrounds, changed their attitudes about life itself,” she said.

Today, as Israel turns to its own population for progress and leadership, Hadassah is working with Israeli youth, such as the children of families from Oriental countries, “who have not really been integrated into the life of Israel, “she added.

When the woman who joins Hadassah today “hears of a program like this, she begins to relate it to the problems she sees all around her, of inner-city kids living throughout the country, disaffection and alienation. Then she says, ‘I’m doing something that has universal application,” said Mrs. Tannenbaum.

CREATING MODELS OF EXCELLENCY

Hadassah was responsible for one of the first community colleges and one of the first comprehensive high schools to be established in Israel. Now there are several such colleges and schools in the country. “We like to create models of Excellency, and we hope the country will then follow our lead. We like to set standards and be pioneering. When we feel the community is able to take on responsibility, we transfer the program,” said Mrs. Tannenbaum.

Hadassah also built the first medical school in conjunction with Hebrew University, the first nursing school, the first hospital and developed the concept of health care, bringing it down to the community level, Mrs. Tannenbaum noted, adding, “We have a whole history of firsts.”

Just this past year, Hadassah opened a cancer institute in Jerusalem. “Jerusalem is a very special place for Hadassah. It’s interwoven with our history so intricately that Hadassah without Jerusalem and Jerusalem without Hadassah, it just can’t be,” said Mrs. Tannenbaum. Next year Hadassah is planning to hold its annual convention in Jerusalem, the first time for Hadassah.

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