One on One with June Walker: Leading lady

Walker completes a term as national president of Hadassah and beginning her position as chairperson of the Conference of Presidents.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
'Congratulations," a passerby calls out to June Walker as she crosses the lobby of Jerusalem's Inbal Hotel. "Good luck," another says, shaking her hand. Walker pauses to respond graciously to the many and varied well-wishers packing the premises - each with a Jewish Agency Board of Governors name-tag around his or her neck. It's one of those summer weeks in Israel's capital, when English chatter can be heard in every corner of the city. Walker, here from Rockaway, New Jersey, seems to be familiar with the lot of them. Which is not surprising, particularly since on this particular day at the end of June, she is wearing two proverbial hats - one of national president of Hadassah Women's Organization of America, and the other of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. This month, she sheds the former, which she has worn for the last four years, to don the latter alone, replacing outgoing chairman Harold Tanner. This, she says, won't necessarily lighten her load, but will definitely shift her focus - from the "multitasking and practicality" of the work she says is characteristic of women's organizations in general and of Hadassah in particular, to "much more political activism." Indeed, explains Walker - who has academic degrees in chemistry, respiratory therapy and public health administration, and who served as director of In-Service Education for Pulmonary Medicine at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, among other health-related roles - as an American organization that receives tax-free donations, Hadassah is not allowed to be involved in politics. This has not prevented her, however, from taking an active stand on delicate issues such as stem-cell research, which, in the United States, has been almost as hot an electoral topic as immigration or the war in Iraq. "Of course, it presents a problem," admits Walker. "For instance, President Bush and the current administration are wonderful supporters of the State of Israel. And since Israel is Hadassah's primary focus, we are thankful for this and express our praise. At the same time, when he vetoed stem-cell research, we said publicly that we wished he had not done so." Walker, who has been involved with Hadassah in one capacity or another since she was a teenager, says the transition will be made easier by the fact that all the figures with whom she will be working (she quips that she and Executive Vice-Chairman of the Conference of Presidents Malcolm Hoenlein are about to become "joined at the hip") are people she has encountered in her previous post. In an hour-long interview, Walker talks about her decades with Hadassah and the needs it fulfills. As for the special nature and considerations of Israel's hospitals, such as the treatment of suicide bombers and prime ministers alike, Walker says, "We firmly believe that medicine should be blind" - a philosophy, she asserts, which "comes from the code of Maimonides and the Hippocratic Oath." You are ending your term as national president of Hadassah and beginning your term as chair of the Conference of Presidents. Is that career move unusual? As the second woman ever to become chair of the Conference of Presidents - the first was Shoshana Cardin, and that was more than a decade ago - it's altogether unusual. I have been involved in Hadassah all my life. When I was 18, my mother was the organization's education vice president. She got me my first job as a study-group chair. Since then, I've been through the whole system. So all my life, whatever else I was doing, I was working for Hadassah. Four years ago, when I became national president, I began going to meetings of the Conference of Presidents. It's a very different kind of an organization from Hadassah. Hadassah is driven by volunteers, and the conference is run by professionals. Is there something distinct about a women's organization? After all, the work that Hadassah does is not gender-specific. I find that women do multitasking a lot better than men do. Also, women keep a sense of practicality. Women's organizations usually have much more tangible end-goals than men's - and they make them happen. Can you give an example of tangible end-goals and practicality? During the intifada, we didn't talk about security and defense; we talked about what we were going to do about the situation. So we built a new emergency room for the people who were getting wounded. Every time something happens - which, unfortunately, seems to be always - we first think of how we can mitigate the damage. How do Israeli politics influence Hadassah's work? As we are not citizens of Israel and therefore don't pay the price of living here, we support any government in power. This is basically because our wish is to support the people of Israel, and the government is the expression of peoplehood. We do what we can to make sure you survive, live and thrive. Have there been Israeli governments that have proven harder to work with than others? All Israel's governments have been equally friendly and equally difficult to work with. The bureaucracy here is beyond belief. Hasn't that improved somewhat in recent years? No. You can still have a nervous breakdown [she laughs] when you need a building permit. During every project we've undertaken, we've had problems with the land authority, the municipality and any other body that requires some kind of license. I'll give you an example. We built a beautiful pool for the kids who stay at our youth hostel. I don't know how many permits we needed to open that pool. Finally, after getting this permit and that one, there was one missing - from the Health Ministry. We couldn't even get the man from the ministry to come and give us the permit, and it was hot like anything. I had to exert really ridiculous political pressure to get somebody to come and stamp a piece of paper. Does it make no difference that Hadassah is well-known to all these authorities? Obviously not [she laughs]. Maybe for other people, it's worse; I don't know. Speaking of projects and licensing, what is your take on the shopping mall at Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem? It's terrific. But I don't want to talk about it as a shopping mall in particular. For one thing, that is connected to the Hadassah Medical Organization. More generally, our input, as Hadassah women's organization in America, results from our being Americans. We were one of the first to institute a bill of rights for patients in our hospitals, for example. We were the first to insist on hospitals being smoke-free. In other words, in Israel, we introduced all the kinds of things that Americans take for granted. Look, next to the mall you asked about is a hotel. This is one of the most common things in America today. I believe it was started by the McDonald's company. Many people undergo treatments, such as chemotherapy, which don't require hospitalization, but do require that they be at the hospital every day. Many medical institutions in America now have adjacent hotels, both for patients and for family members of patients. So, we we've been looking at this and planning it for years. Hospitalization today is very different from what it used to be, even in the last 20 years. Not long ago, if you had a cataract removed, for instance, you were in the hospital for two weeks, with your head in sandbags. Today, you go in in the morning, you go out in the afternoon and two days later you're okay. Same thing with hip replacements. Today, they're done with a four-inch cut, so you're not sick. Hospital stays now seem to fall into two categories: very short term - you know, same-day surgery and that kind of thing - and very long term. So it's good for families to have facilities, not just a hotel - a place to eat, to shop. Which explains the mall. Now, of course, on the campus of Ein Kerem, we're building a new patient tower, because the existing one is 50-odd years old. In medical terms, it's antique. This will not only include an updated technical infrastructure, but patient amenities. For instance, there are currently some rooms with four or five patients and a single bathroom. That's not going to be the case any more. So when I speak of American influence: We brought people from Israel to the US to visit many hospitals and see how things are done differently there. Americans are probably around 15 years ahead of Israelis in terms of hospital amenities. What about women's health? Is it really distinct? Yes, and Hadassah was a strong advocate for the NIH [National Institutes of Health, an agency of the US Department of Health and Human Services] to recognize women's medicine as such. Men's and women's medicine are different in the same way that pediatrics is different from adult medicine. Today, we have three women's health centers in Israel: one in Abu Ghosh, one in Mount Scopus and one in Beit Shemesh. Speaking of this kind of advocacy, how active is Hadassah in American politics in general? As a tax-exempt organization that accepts donations, we are not allowed to participate in politics. But this doesn't mean that we don't participate in the debate on issues, which sometimes makes things a bit difficult. Issues like abortion, you mean? Yes, or stem-cell research. President Bush opposes stem-cell research, and you support it. What happens in a case like that, which is a bone of contention between the Democrats and Republicans? We focus on the issue itself. Our philosophy is that politics should not determine the advance of science - that science should be independent of politics. And we campaigned on the federal and state level - remember, we're a very large organization. Two years ago, in fact, there was a month when every single state legislature was visited and lobbied to advocate for stem-cells. So, we stick to the issues. We don't say vote for A instead of B. And of course, it presents a problem. For instance, President Bush and the current administration are wonderful supporters of the State of Israel. And since Israel is Hadassah's primary focus, we are thankful for this and express our praise. At the same time, when he vetoed stem-cell research, we said publicly that we wished he had not done so. And that wasn't a problem with your tax-exempt status? No, because it was issue-based. But certainly we would never campaign for a candidate, because we're not allowed to do that. Let's take a different kind of issue. The Hadassah Medical Organization treats Palestinians alongside Jewish Israelis. There have even been cases where a suicide bomber who survived was in a room with one of his victims. Does this arouse debate within your organization? No, because we firmly believe that medicine should be blind. If a person's in need, you help him. If you have a medical license, you have no right to judge whom you treat. That comes from the code of Maimonides and the Hippocratic Oath. Once a person in need of treatment enters the door of the hospital, he or she is a patient. That's it. Speaking of which, what happened when former prime minister Ariel Sharon came through the door of your hospital? I came to Israel when he had his second stroke to provide support for our director-general, Shlomo Mor-Yosef. And I can attest to the fact that Sharon was treated just like any other patient. Of course, in the interest of security, we had to block off a hallway at the end of one of the intensive care units. But wasn't the press swarming? Press tents were set up in the square outside of the hospital. And the reporters remained pretty much under those tents, because it was constantly raining. And the pizza trucks were arriving every five minutes [she laughs], but the prime minister's security people didn't let any members of the media enter the hospital. Once you walked through the door, it was a day like any other day. All patients were treated as they would have been treated if the prime minister had not been there. There was no turmoil. I have to give Shlomo Mor-Yosef credit for that. He did a wonderful job. And [hospital spokesman] Ron Krumer kept the press informed. And I have to tell you, there were Arab doctors, as well as Jewish ones, treating Sharon. It was completely business as usual. What will your job with the Conference of Presidents entail? Much more political activism. Building bridges between the Israelis and the Americans. Will you be working closely with Malcolm Hoenlein? Yes, we'll be attached at the hip [she laughs]. It'll be fine. He'll get used to me and I'll get used to him. What is the biggest challenge ahead? I think the biggest challenge Malcolm and I will have in the coming year is formulating American-Jewish policy vis-a-vis Iran, and influencing the American government. You know, there's a whole furor with this issue of divestment. The only thing that the American government, American Jews and Israelis seem to agree on is that every possible avenue has to be explored before military action is taken. Former American ambassador to the UN John Bolton, among others, thinks that exploration of avenues has run its course. Yes, well, not everybody agrees on everything. But this is the beauty of America and Israel: that we can live with disagreements. We can be looking at things from a whole different perspective, but the end goals are the same. How much of your focus has been Israel, and how much Jewish life in America? That's very hard to say. Most of the funds we raise wind up in Israel. The rest go to activities in America. But it's hard to separate the two, because, for the purpose of Jewish continuity, we train people in America and send them to Israel as part of that. So it's all mixed up together. We have our Young Judaea programs all over the United States, six camps and two programs in Israel: the Machon, a six-week summer course, and a year-course - between high school and college. Does this mean it's "Jewish life in America"-focused? It is focused on American kids becoming Zionists. Look, where I live determines how I live my day-to-day life. But I am a Jew, and basically my motivation is the preservation of the Jewish people. To me, the most potent expression of that is the State of Israel.