Focus on Issues: Hadassah Opens Up Its Doors to a Younger, Hipper Generation
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Focus on Issues: Hadassah Opens Up Its Doors to a Younger, Hipper Generation

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Diva Barbra Streisand has lent her name to its new institute dedicated to research on Jewish women.

And Donna Shalala, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, predicted at its national convention in Chicago in July that a U.S. president would emerge from its ranks.

What is it? Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. And if you’re surprised, you’re not keeping up.

Contrary to popular conception, it “is not your mother’s coffee klatch,” as a highpowered public relations firm put it in a recent media advisory.

Indeed, guided by a national commission of prominent Jewish women, focus groups, marketing consultants and long-range strategic plans, Hadassah is reinventing itself.

As the organization takes a prominent place at this month’s 33rd Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, it is determined to capture a younger constituency less attached to Zionism than the older guard.

And it has achieved a measure of success. New Hadassah groups for young women are springing up nationwide, even as the membership of other Zionist women’s organizations has aged and flagged.

These new groups have reinvigorated the largest women’s organization in the United States, which boasts more than 300,000 members.

In interviews, many women under 45 say they have rediscovered an organization they had previously taken for granted and dismissed as irrelevant.

“I always knew about Hadassah through my mom,” says Lisa Hershkin, 29, a school social worker in the New York area.

“I was made a life member for my Bat Mitzvah.

“But I didn’t know the specifics until I attended my first convention” this summer, says Hershkin, who now is on the board of Shatil, a young women’s Hadassah group based in New York City that boasts 400 members.

Shatil’s programs this year have included evenings with an Israeli Knesset member, discussions on American elections and intermarriage, a blood drive, happy hours that raise funds for health care and a High Holiday workshop “from a women’s perspective.”

A recent evening found Hershkin at Hadassah’s midtown New York headquarters behind a desk, telephoning other younger members to solicit donations for the new motherchild pavilion at the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem.

Hershkin’s interest in Hadassah grew from her “need to be involved,” she says. “Tzedakah is how my family brought us up. It’s just a part of what you do, of who I am.”

From her first meeting, she says, “I realized it wasn’t an organization for mothers and grandmothers, and if we want it to continue, we must get young people involved.”

Hadassah’s historic hallmark has been building and sustaining a network of state-of-the-art health care in Israel, through the Hadassah Medical Organization.

Of the estimated $88 million in support and revenue in fiscal 1997, between $50 million and $55 million was spent on Hadassah projects, according to Hadassah officials.

Some of the money went to career counseling services, a technical college and the Jewish National Fund. Hadassah is JNF’s largest organizational contributor.

But the lion’s share is spent on health facilities and research.

Now, Hadassah has taken up the cudgel for women’s health in the United States, crusading on and off Capitol Hill for breast cancer research, and osteoporosis prevention and testing.

Hadassah also has positioned itself at the forefront of the fight against genetic discrimination by health insurers after studies showed that Ashkenazi Jewish women have a potentially heightened hereditary predisposition to breast and ovarian cancers.

This focus is a short leap for Hadassah, which was founded in 1912 by Henrietta Szold, Jewish scholar and Zionist pioneer, following a study group of 12 women whose initial focus was public health nursing in Palestine.

Hadassah long has commanded respect in international, male-dominated Zionist circles.

The most recent evidence of its clout was its success in winning an unusual status that will first take effect at the Zionist Congress, which opens in Jerusalem on Dec. 23.

Hadassah is expected to be assigned 32 delegates for whom it did not have to compete in the recent congress elections. Those delegates are in addition to the 145-member American delegation.

That does not, however, mean it stays entirely out of the political fray.

The organization adopted a policy statement at its convention during the summer reaffirming its commitment to religious pluralism and calling on the Israeli government to reject legislative efforts that would impose “more restrictive definitions of religious conversions.”

At the same time, Hadassah has been under fire from the Reform and Conservative Zionist organizations over the way its delegates were assigned by the Zionist political establishment in Israel.

The organization never was limited strictly to health, however. One of its trademark projects, taken on by Szold in 1935, was Youth Aliyah, the progam to resettle mostly orphaned European children in Palestine in youth villages.

The new expansion is part of an overarching master plan.

Marlene Post, who lives on Long Island in New York, the group’s energetic and outspoken president who was trained as a nurse and has three daughters, says the process of redefining Hadassah began five years ago.

“Our membership was in decline, our grass-roots fund raising was down and we weren’t paying attention to developing [new] leaders,” she says.

But the picture is changing, and Post has made it her personal mission to cultivate a new, young cadre of leaders.

There has also been a big push to expand programming to broaden Hadassah’s appeal, with a new range of activities from literacy tutoring to a popular Jewish family education program called “Training Wheels.”

The result: Hadassah has awakened to its own potential power.

Initially, the expansion was resisted by long-time board members, Post says, who were afraid such a change would take away from the programs for older women and from Hadassah’s core missions.

But they came around, she says, when they understood that the plan was to draw in younger women “through issues that are attractive today.”

Once in, Hadassah would educate them and get them involved in activities that ultimately would “strengthen their Judaism and Zionist connection.”

The strategy makes sense to Diane Sherman, a 34-year-old dentist in Solano Beach, Calif., who is the president of Kesher, her area’s young women’s group, with 40 members.

“It is hard to get young women attracted to a purely Zionist organization,” Sherman says.

“Our generation doesn’t have the same connection to Zionism as the previous generation did, especially the generation that lived through the Holocaust.”

Most young women get involved in Hadassah initially for social reasons, to meet other Jewish women, she adds.

“Later,” she says, “they learn the importance of the organization” and the work that it does.

The expansion of Hadassah’s programming followed the findings of a special national commission appointed by Hadassah and Brandeis University. Those findings were compiled in a publication released a few years ago, “Voices for Change: Future Directions for American Jewish Women.”

It concluded that young women were alienated from the Jewish establishment and were longing to be connected. It also found there was a paucity of research and data on Jewish women.

The initiative spawned the new International Research Institute on Jewish Women at Brandeis University.

The institute, which boasts Streisand as its honorary chairwoman, this week is sponsoring its first symposium, focusing on Jewish women around the world.

“If women are the fulcrum of family, we have to know more” about Jewish women, Post says, adding that the institute “may be Hadassah’s best gift to the Jewish people.”

In her bid for Jewish “resurgence,” a word she prefers to “continuity,” Post is also focusing on boosting its Young Judaea youth movement.

For now, though, the younger generation has a tough act to follow in terms of dedication and commitment, a hallmark of Hadassah’s leaders.

Karen Venezky is a prime example of that dedication.

Venezky commutes by Amtrak three time a week — three-and-a-half hours each way — from Newark, Del., to the organization’s national office in Manhattan, where she is the volunteer coordinator for the Center for Innovation, which oversees the strategic planning effort.

“Before I got married,” Venezky says, remembering back 30 years, “my mother sat me down for a conversation, and I assumed it was going to be about sex.”

Instead, Venezky remembers, “She asked, `What are you going to do to have a Jewish life?’ And I said, `We’re going to join a congregation, light Sabbath candles and celebrate holidays.’

“She said, `but what are you going to do for the Jewish people?'” Answering her own question, Venezky says: `You can join Hadassah.'”

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