NEW YORK (Jul. 14)
Hadassah honors a `giant’ figure in the world of American Zionism Ask 20 people to name the greatest living Zionist leaders, and Charlotte Jacobson will top the list.
So posits Marlene Post, national president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, to explain why the organization has broken with tradition in bestowing on one of its own this year’s Henrietta Szold Award – - an honor previously reserved for politicians and prominent scholars.
In being named for the award, which was to be presented Tuesday during Hadassah’s 84th annual convention in Manhattan, the lifelong volunteer will join the ranks of Harry Truman, Golda Meir and Elie Wiesel.
But Jacobson, who first took to the streets of her native Bronx in protest of British “closed door” policies in Palestine, has less in common with previous honorees than she does with the award’s namesake.
Szold, the founder of Hadassah, was a dynamic activist who dedicated her life to what Jacobson calls the “upbuilding” of Israeli society and the strengthening of Jewish education in America.
And although they never met, Jacobson as president of Hadassah in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War, reopened Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus, whose cornerstone had been laid by Szold. The hospital had been cut off in the battle for Jerusalem.
Jacobson’s award coincides with the launching of the Hadassah Leadership Academy, a three-year program aimed at grooming future leaders from the vanguard of Hadassah’s 300,000 members.
It also coincides with the group’s re-examination of post-state Zionism in a book titled, “Zionism: The Sequel.” But Jacobson says that although its methods and techniques have changed, Hadassah’s philosophy of supporting Israel and encouraging Jewish commitment endures.
Now, serving as an honorary vice president of Hadassah, Jacobson looks back on a volunteer career that began in the mid-1940s when, as a young wife, she walked into her first Hadassah chapter meeting.
Since then, she has devoted her life to the organization, where the spry octogenarian still works every day, garnering a long list of honors and awards. She served as Hadassah’s national president from 1964 to 1968, the first female president of the Jewish National Fund, the chair of the American Section of the World Zionist Organization, a member of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel and was recognized by the WZO for her work with young and disadvantaged Israeli immigrants as a World Patron of Youth Aliyah.
Seymour Reich, the former president of the American Zionist Movement, calls the diminutive doyenne of American Zionism a “giant” in the Zionist world.
“She may not have always assumed presidencies, but her voice was always heard,” Reich says of Jacobson, who is known as a tenacious and articulate advocate for social issues — from medical care and vocational training in Israel to women’s rights and intrareligious communal dialogue.
“When there’s a discussion of interest to her, the debate may have been ensuing for 15 or 20 minutes when Charlotte will pop up her hand and invariably wins the day.”
Jacobson led a Hadassah delegation to the Soviet Union in 1966, at the request, she says, of the Israeli government. After that visit, during which she and her group all wore visible Stars of David at a time when that wasn’t done, Jacobson was among those who pushed for the creation of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, overcoming resistance from some in the organized Jewish community who felt such an organization was unnecessary.
The National Conference, founded in 1971, eventually became a potent political force in the battle to win freedom for Soviet Jews.
Jacobson’s gift of persuasion provided her with the leverage she needed to push her issues forward, she says, along with the clout conferred on any representative of Hadassah, the largest American women’s movement.
“We acted for causes,” she says in an interview, her low voice punching out the words to reveal a hint of her electrifying oratory.
Stressing Hadassah’s non-political nature, she says she “relied on Hadassah’s reputation and the fact that in my work I had met people from all streams, from right to left, and could go to them honestly for a cause I thought was right.”
A case in point: Jacobson became friendly with former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and could enlist his aid when necessary — “not because I was interested in his political views, but I was impressed by his determination – - and his cause.”
Her personal connections enabled her to make an appeal to the Egyptian first lady during a visit to Cairo in 1976.
Jacobson recalls: “At the time I said, `Look, I’m here. I don’t represent the Israel government. I don’t represent the United States government. I just represent an organization that cares about peace. And we think the time has come that women can play a role. We think dialogue is much more important than war. And we think that a woman like you can use your influence to do it.”
The following year, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made his “historical call” to Israel, paving the way for an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
“We like to joke that we changed the tide,” Jacobson says now, “but we’re not fooling ourselves.”
Colleagues do, however, credit her for less momentous, but perhaps to her, more satisfying efforts: keeping youth issues at the forefront of the Zionist movement, championing the “Israel experience,” advocating for young people moving to Israel and negotiating with the Jewish Agency on behalf of Kibbutz Ketura, the settlement in the Arava Desert founded by graduates of Hadassah’s youth movement, Young Judaea.
“What has Charlotte done?” asks Rabbi Daniel Allen, the executive vice president of the United Israel Appeal, where Jacobson has been a longtime board member. “She’s made sure that the next generation has every opportunity to be in Israel, to make aliyah and to be part of the society.”
Now that Israel has completed much of the work of absorbing immigrants from North Africa to Eastern Europe, Jacobson, who is on the board of JTA, says Israel is experiencing a “lull” in Zionist activity.
“I think we’re just sort of glad to catch our breath,” she says, but she has already turned her attention to fostering connections between young Israelis and American Jews.
Combating disinterest, she says, “this is the challenge of today.”