One hundred years ago at Temple Emanu-El in New York City, educator and writer Henrietta Szold took a dream and made it into reality. Together with a group of determined young women – all skilled Jewish communal activists and committed Zionists – Szold founded the Hadassah Women’s Organization.

Today, Hadassah launches its centennial convention here in Israel, which includes the dedication of the $363 million Sarah Wetsman Davidson Hospital Tower that will be a much-needed addition to the cramped and outdated Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem.

Over the past century Hadassah has come a long way. But even in its first years, the organization served a crucial role in developing health and social welfare infrastructure in what would become the State of Israel – for both the Jewish and the Arab population. Hadassah’s operations in Israel were strongly influenced by Szold’s strong belief in the need for Jewish and Arab coexistence (she was an advocate for a binational Jewish-Arab state in Israel). To this day Hadassah’s liberal leaning reflects the Jewish ethos of social justice and tikkun olam.

In 1913, the newly formed organization managed to raise the funds needed to pay the salaries of two nurses dispatched to Jerusalem to establish a nurses’ station. In 1918, the American Zionist Medical Unit was established and a group of doctors, nurses, dentists and sanitary engineers traveled to Israel to establish permanent health and welfare programs.

Beginning in the 1920s, Hadassah sewing circles across the US produced linens, blankets and clothing for orphans. With Hadassah’s financial support, pasteurized milk was distributed at infant welfare centers in the Land of Israel that became known as “Drop of Milk” (Tipat Halav) stations. Playgrounds were built; the Hadassah Nurses’ Training School was established; Youth Aliya Villages were created; a career counseling institute was established.

Hadassah was instrumental in creating a college of technology where Israelis could learn optometry, medical technology or graphic design. And two medical centers were created.

But no less dramatic was Hadassah’s advancement of America’s Jewish women. At a time when the only careers open to women were in the fields of writing, teaching, nursing and social work, Hadassah fostered “female empowerment” way before the phrase had been coined (Szold lived in the era of suffragettes). To generate the sort of organizational framework that had such a tremendous impact on Israel’s development (and elsewhere), “Hadassah ladies” had to recruit and employ volunteers, raise huge sums of money, lobby politicians, give speeches before crowds, develop negotiating skills and craft a uniquely feminine leadership model.

Hadassah tapped into the vast reservoir of female talent squandered by a chauvinist, male-dominated America.

Hadassah became a breeding ground for feminine Jewish leadership. Rose Gell Jacobs, who served two terms as Hadassah’s national president, was the first woman to serve on the Jewish Agency Executive. Charlotte Jacobson, another former Hadassah national president, was the first woman president of the Jewish National Fund.

Ironically, the widespread empowerment of women that began with the rise of the feminist movement in the 1970s hurt Hadassah. As women began to embark on careers en masse, they had even less time than men to devote to voluntary endeavors. A mother was – and still is – expected to continue to work at home in addition to pursuing a career.

It became much more difficult to recruit “Hadassah women” than it had been to recruit “Hadassah ladies.”

Weakening commitment to specifically Jewish causes has also made Hadassah’s work harder. Grandmothers who grew up in Hadassah could give their granddaughters lifetime membership, but increasingly the younger generation identified less with Hadassah’s message. And with intermarriage rates skyrocketing in recent decades, often these granddaughters were not even Jewish.

And Hadassah, as other charitable organizations, is struggling with the economic downturn. Since Hadassah was hit particularly hard by the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scandal, the dry period had been made even harder to bear.

But the new Sarah Wetsman Davidson Hospital Tower is a testament to Hadassah’s resilience. And the challenges presented by weakening Jewish identity among American Jews are faced not just by Hadassah but by all Jewish organizations in that country. Indeed, Hadassah’s activities are part of the solution to assimilation and intermarriage.

Hadassah has come a long way since that fateful meeting at Temple Emanu-El 100 years ago. We can only hope that the next 100 years are as fruitful.

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