Can Hadassah, At 100, Go Virtual?


The birthday girl is turning 100 this year, and she says she’s feeling just fine, thank you. She’s still raising tons of money, has a membership role that continues to grow and is still improving health care in Israel through its world-class hospital.

But this is not your grandmother’s Jewish community anymore. And the jury is out on whether Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, which marks its centennial this year, can be relevant to young Jewish women in a fast-moving world.

The group is grappling with a variety of new challenges: worldwide economic turmoil that has caused it to slash its budget and workforce, a membership whose median age remains stubbornly fixed at 65, and younger working women who are too busy to attend meetings.

“Young women today have no time in their lives for Hadassah — or anything else because they are involved with the PTA and ballet for the kids, etc.,” acknowledged Marcie Natan, Hadassah’s national president. “So how do we create a meaningful connection for younger women without expecting them to attend regular Hadassah meetings and events?”

One answer, which is still in its development stage, involves the creation of virtual chapters. Members would be able to communicate with each other through a website. Many Hadassah regions and chapters already have their own Facebook pages.

“We’re also meeting with women and asking what we could do to connect them with the organization,” Natan said. “We understand we have to do something different. We don’t expect them to go to lunch meetings, but we do want to heighten their awareness of the importance of Israel, advocacy, women’s health, being politically savvy, and understanding the domestic issues out there from domestic abuse to genetic discrimination.”

To educate women about these issues, Hadassah will provide women with information they need to know through the Internet on a monthly basis.

“They can study this on their own or with other like-minded women,” Natan said. “We’ll also be holding focus groups.”

Hadassah will be making these changes even as it has had to make major cutbacks since 2008 due to the economic downturn in the United States and the $45 million it was forced to give back (half of its $90 million profit) in the Bernard Madoff scandal. Its annual contribution to Hadassah Hospital was cut from $40 million to $19 million and its staff was cut from 400 to 141. (This week the group announced the sale of its Midtown Manhattan headquarters for $71.5 million.)

In addition, it has begun splitting from Young Judaea, a Zionist youth organization that Hadassah assumed the management of in 1967 after merging it with Junior Hadassah. The alumni will now run it but Hadassah will still help disadvantaged youngsters and raise scholarship money.

Despite these difficulties, Hadassah continues to grow. It now boasts a record 330,000 members in the United States while many other Jewish groups have disappeared or shrunk. And it added 60,000 members last year alone when it offered life membership for just $100; life membership is now $212.

A number of last year’s new members are the children and grandchildren of members — a practice that has been going on for years. One woman signed up as a child by relatives was Donna Gerson of Philadelphia, now 47. She forgot about it until about a dozen years ago when she was invited by a friend to attend a local Hadassah meeting and went “just to humor her.”

“I remember calling my mother on my car phone and saying in a snarky voice, ‘Guess where I’m going?’ So I walked into the meeting and they were planning an educational program on organ donor awareness in the Jewish community. It was a well-run, thoughtful meeting. I remember thinking, ‘What an incredible group of women.’ And they hooked me; I became involved.”

Gerson said she later called the New York headquarters of Hadassah to confirm what her mother had told her — that she became a life member of Hadassah as a bat mitzvah gift from her grandmothers, who themselves were life members.

“The person checked the computer and said, ‘Welcome back, Donna.’ It was like I was a sleeper agent. By then, both of my grandmothers had passed away and I thought, ‘What an amazing link that so many years later I could be bound to them through this amazing organization.’”

And that bond linking one generation to the next — as well as interesting and educational programming — appear to be major reasons for the continuing success of Hadassah. It is to hold its gala centennial convention Oct. 15-18 in Jerusalem; an estimated 2,500 women are expected to attend.

At the convention, the $363 million Sarah Wetsman Davidson Hospital Tower is slated to be formally dedicated on Hadassah’s Ein Kerem campus. Two floors of patient rooms opened in March and all patients are to be moved in by late next year. The current hospital building would then be switched from an inpatient to an outpatient facility. Research offices and some departments would also remain there.

Natan said the organization expects that by 2015 all pledges will be fulfilled to pay for the tower.

“There were over 60 $1 million-plus donors and one $75 million gift from the Davidson family,” she said. “And they just pledged another $12.5 million matching grant that runs through Dec. 31, 2014.”

Natan pointed out that William Davidson has a special attachment to Hadassah because Bessie and Joseph Wetsman, the parents of his mother, Sarah, hosted Henrietta Szold when the Detroit chapter was opened in their home in 1916. Szold founded Hadassah just four years earlier.

One of Hadassah’s oldest members, Min Stelzer, a member of the Greater Washington Area chapter, said she still attends meetings and stays abreast of Hadassah activities.

“It makes me feel so good,” she said. “I try to make a donation here and there, but when you’re 100 years old, you’re saving for your old age.”

Sylvia Barack Fishman, co-director of the Hadassah Brandeis Institute in Waltham, Mass., a research center, said Hadassah has been successful because it has been “taken to the hearts of American Jews.”

“For a lot of American Jews, especially Jewish women, working for Hadassah was a way they showed they cared about Israel in an American way,” she said. “It had clearly defined goals that Americans could agree were important — for example health, youth, Jewish education for women and improving American society in targeted ways like literacy in America.”

Fishman added that she believes Hadassah will endure because it is not a stagnant organization.

“The fact that it is now thinking of virtual chapters and other ways of adapting to the contemporary world is a reason it will continue to thrive,” she added.

Bernice Tanenbaum, Hadassah’s national president in the late 1970s who continues to work for it at the age of 99, said it is thriving because “there’s a magic about it.”

“There’s a feeling of solidarity, of being with friends who believe as you do about the magnificence of the organization’s ideals and concepts,” she said.

Although the median age of Hadassah members is 65, there are several Young Women’s chapters for those in their 20s and 30s. Rachel Brenner, 28, joined the one in Manhattan when she moved here five years ago from Rochester. Before the move, however, she spent a few months in Israel, during which she was a public relations intern at the Hadassah office there.

“When I moved here, I sought out the local chapter because it’s a great way to make friends in a new city and I was looking for a way to volunteer in a Jewish organization,” she said. “Hadassah was the perfect fit.”

Brenner, who said a family friend made her a life member of Hadassah the day she was born, said she is a second-generation Hadassah member but that there are other women in the chapter who are third and fourth generation members.

And other women, like Ruth Gursky of Manhattan, joined as an adult. Gursky, who said she is in her mid-50s, got involved eight years ago by joining the three-year Hadassah Leadership Academy, which teaches women about Judaism, Jewish values, leadership skills, Israel, Jewish peoplehood and Hadassah. She said the thing that convinced her to join was the offer of a free 10-day trip to Israel.

“There was an extensive application process but it was worth it — and Hadassah got a major volunteer and donor out of it,” Gursky said. “I became a Hadassah member hook, line and sinker.”

Brenner said she believes “there is now a tradition that when a baby girl is born or has a bat mitzvah, they become a life member of Hadassah. There are plenty of other organizations, but 100 years of Hadassah is something to be proud of because it has done so much in Israel and around the world, such as building hospitals in Israel, helping with youth aliyah and setting up colleges in Israel.”

Youth Aliyah is a child rescue program Hadassah helped to create in 1934 when Szold helped rescue 14,3000 children from the Holocaust, primarily German Jews. Initially, they were settled in agriculture villages. Today, Hadassah has three aliyah youth villages that focus on resettling the children of Ethiopian and Russian immigrants and the more than 300,000 Israeli children who live on the street and are addicted to drugs and alcohol.

Hadassah’s colleges are the Henrietta Szold Hadassah-Hebrew University School of Nursing, Hadassah College Jerusalem and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem-Hadassah Medical School.

Hadassah’s principle function is its support of the Hadassah Medical Organization (HMO), which consists of two hospital complexes in Jerusalem, one at Ein Kerem and the other at its original campus on Mount Scopus. When opened in 1939, it was the first modern medical facility in the region.

Szold was the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi who “epitomized today’s woman,” according to Marlene Post, Hadassah’s centennial co-chair and a former Hadassah national president.

“She helped begin the night school for immigrants who came to America,” she said. “She was a Jewish educator who was fluent in German, English and Hebrew — the Hebrew came from her father, the rabbi. She translated books from German to English. She made her first trip to Palestine [what is now Israel] in 1909. She went around the country and observed and spent almost a year there. She never married.”

Hadassah began from a study group, the Daughters of Zion, in which Szold served as the education leader for a dozen or more women. It was founded in the Harlem apartment of Matilda Schechter, the wife of Rabbi Solomon Schechter, founder and president of the United Synagogue of America and president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The first meeting in 1912 was held on Purim, and the group was called Hadassah because it was the Hebrew name of the heroine of the Purim story, Queen Esther.

The group’s goal was to promote the Zionist ideal through education, public health programs and the training of nurses in what was then Palestine.

“Her dream for modern, Western medical care came from the people of Palestine,” said Marcie Natan, Hadassah’s current president. “She saw us treating everyone — there was no distinction between Jews, Palestinian Muslims, Christians — we were going to provide state of the art medical care for everybody. And we are not only caring for everybody, but if you look at the current population of Israel you will see Ethiopians, Russians, Moroccan immigrants — everyone is represented on Hadassah’s staff.”

Natan said that although Hadassah controls the board of Hadassah Hospital, it does not get involved in staffing — leaving that to the hospital’s director-general. But the decision of whom to hire to oversee the running of the hospital is made by the HMO board. Hadassah members in the United States have the controlling vote on that board, but not without criticism.

In 2010, four of the five Israeli members of the HMO board of directors resigned over the board’s decision not to renew the contract of then director-general Prof. Shlomo Mor-Yosef. They complained of a “lack of faith” by the American women in the management of the HMO, and that the “lines that separate between the interests of the HMO and the interest of [Hadassah’s American women] are not always clear.”

One of the newest members of the Young Women’s chapter in Manhattan, Emily Rosenfield, turned 26 last weekend and said she joined shortly after moving to the city three years ago from Kittery Point, Me.

“I was looking to make friends and build a community and it occurred to me to get involved with Hadassah,” she said, adding that within two years the chapter adopted her suggestion that it dedicate a year raising funds and awareness for breast cancer research at Hadassah Hospital.

“It was something our members could get excited about and we raised $3,600 at two events,” Rosenfield said. “I’m not sure if a different organization would have been so receptive to a new person coming in, proposing such an idea and making an impact right away.”