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.
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be a much-needed addition to the cramped and outdated Hadassah University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
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
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
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
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
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.