Nearly two thousand women have gathered in Jerusalem this week to mark the hundredth anniversary of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization. Jerusalem is not only the Jewish people’s capital, it is the city graced by two Hadassah hospitals, and dozens of other Hadassah blessings. On display this week – and every day -- is a celebration of the three words in Hadassah’s subtitle, tapping into: the power of women, the magic of Zionism, and the transformational potential of one, effective organization.
For years now, some have wanted Hadassah to be the WOMEN’S zionist organization – downplaying the Zionism – while others have wanted it to be the women’s ZIONIST organization – downplaying the gender identity. Both extreme factions are wrong. The two together make Hadassah, Hadassah. When Henrietta Szold launched the organization in 1912, women did not have the power or public standing they have today. Hadassah has empowered generations of Jewish women, demonstrating how much women could accomplish, while reflecting a female sensibility in such crucial, life-affirming arenas as health, education, and welfare.
Growing up in the Hadassah-sponsored Young Judaea youth movement, my friends and I in the late 1970s witnessed a world in which women’s leadership was natural not forced. We met powerful role models, who were just doing what they were doing as Zionist leaders, running a multi-million dollar organization, speaking at rallies, meeting with Israeli leaders. The formidable Charlotte Jacobson, the legendary Ruth Popkin, the extraordinary Marlene Post, were all part of a chain of leadership that began with Henrietta Szold, reached fulfillment with Golda Meir, and continues today. The Zionism we absorbed was egalitarian, non-sexist, constructively, easily, healthily feminist.
Hadassah Zionism has also been unique. Hadassah Zionism is broad-based, pragmatic, welcoming, and activist. It is about building bridges and uniting Jews around the idea of a Jewish State, not testing each other for ideological or religious purity on a dozen dimensions. And it is about a purifying, transforming, altruistic activism. Hadassah is not just check writing and fundraising. It is about educating and imagining: educating its members and non-members, while imagining a better world for all through the best medical institutions in the world, top technical colleges, extraordinary programs.
Hadassah Zionism, therefore, especially as exemplified by its two flagship hospitals in Jerusalem, teaches the important Zionist and nationalist lesson – that through peoplehood power, through national pride, through Jewish values, through Zionist commitments you can have universalist achievements, doing a world of good for Jews, Arabs and Christians who live in the Middle East and for humanity through pioneering medical and social service work. For that reason, because through peace and through war, Hadassah has been an oasis of mutual cooperation improving the world, I have repeatedly asserted one of my few powers as an academic and nominated it for the Nobel Peace Prize – only to be disappointed as the relativistic, self-involved Europeans honor Yasir Arafat, Jimmy Carter, and in the ultimate act of self-indulgence, the European Union this year.
For its next 100 years, Hadassah must adjust its mission. It is now evolving away from underwriting the Young Judaea youth movement, giving that important organization the independence it needs. It continues its holy work supporting the Hadassah Medical Organization, epitomized by this week’s opening of the $363 million dollar, high-tech, up-to-date, 19-story, 500-bed Davidson Medical Tower at Ein Karem. But it also should embrace a new cause – fighting the growing values crisis afflicting modern Jewry in general and American Jewry in particular.
Even during these economically perilous times, so many of us are suffering from affluenza, the spiritual influenza that comes from having too much. Symptoms include amnesia regarding enduring values, materialism, lack of motivation, addiction to electronics, weakened commitments, diluted relationships, bouts of depression, epidemics of meaninglessness.
Belonging to the Republic of Nothing, so many sleepwalk through life, wired in to virtual experiences and fake Facebook friends, insulating ourselves from a culture of ideas, of values, of caring, of sacrificing for any principles. If the stereotyped Hadassah Ladies of yesteryear, reeking of character, were characterized by their indomitable spirit, formidable presence, and relentless pursuit of their goal, their children and grandchildren, of the “Whatever” generation, risk being pale shadows of their colorful forbears, rootless, aimless, spineless, amoral, disaffected, passive, disengaged.
Hadassah’s network of 300,000 women cannot only trust their role modeling and their good works to help tackle this problem. They have to, as the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, address this problem boldly, directly, creatively. The must be harbingers of a Zionist values revolution, championing Identity Zionism. They must learn how to inspire their children and grandchildren to inherit their commitments not just their assets, their skill sets not just their bank books, their values not just their valuables.
They should start a conversation immediately, about who they are, what they do, why they do what they do, and why they need the next generation as partners in this holy work. They should explain how much they have done for Israel – and explain how by doing so much for that great country and for the United States, they also did so much for themselves. In so doing, they will reveal the true secret of Jewish communal work, of charitable giving and community building, that the more you give the more you get, the more you invest in good deeds and good works, the greater and grander your life becomes.
John Kennedy got it half right. It is good to ask “what you can do for your country.” But the experience of hundreds of thousands of Hadassah heroines over the years shows that in doing for your country, your people, your community, you also discover all the good that your country, your people, your community can do for you.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, "Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism" will be published next month.