As it celebrates its 100th national convention, Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America (HWZOA), is working hard to find new ways to engage and empower the next generation of women.
The event, taking place in Jerusalem this week, marks the first in-person Hadassah convention since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the first official outing for the organization’s new Evolve Leadership Fellows.
The fellows are young members of Hadassah’s new Evolve initiative, with its stated goals of advocating for women’s issues, supporting Israel, and combating antisemitism.
Hundreds of members of the organization attended the convention in Israel.
The main highlight was the Hadassah Honors award ceremony on Wednesday, in which former Hadassah national president and longtime volunteer leader Marlene Post received the Henrietta Szold Lifetime Achievement Award, named after the organization’s founder.
Post previously served as the 21st president of the HWZOA and is widely recognized for a five-decade career volunteering for a variety of humanitarian causes. She is currently on the Board of the American Zionist Movement and the Board of Directors for the Jewish Agency for Israel.
With 300,000 members, HWZOA is one of the largest international Jewish organizations in the world and supports several women’s initiatives, schools, and programs in the US. Among its many significant projects over the decades, the group also helped found two major hospitals in Jerusalem: Hadassah Ein Kerem and Hadassah Mount Scopus.
In an interview with The Media Line, former president Marlene Post and current president Rhoda Smolow discussed the significance of holding the 100th convention in Jerusalem as well as the challenges facing the organization moving forward.
TML: What is most significant to each of you about Hadassah’s 100th convention?
Rhoda Smolow: When I was installed as president, two months later there was a pandemic but during my installation, I said that we have the 100th convention coming up and it had to be in Israel. It had to be in Jerusalem. There was no other way to do it because we are Hadassah, and we are a Zionist women’s organization.
Marlene Post: There’s something special about coming to Israel. There’s something unique about being in Jerusalem. There’s something that gets to your heart without saying a word that we’re here, our hospitals are here, our work is here, and we believe in the State of Israel. … We can talk all we want back in the United States, but there is nothing like having feet on the ground in Israel. It just means so much to me and I want to share that with everyone.
TML: We are just coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. How many people have been able to join now the celebrations in Jerusalem?
RS: I announced the convention at my installation, and I wanted 1,000 people. I remember in ‘91 when we had about 30 or 40 buses in Israel at a convention and for me, that was so important to me that that was my dream. I’ve accepted the fact that my dream is a little smaller now and we have about 360 people here who are members. We also have guests, supporters, and such. But we really had a problem with people being afraid to travel and the uncertainty of signing up ahead of time. I actually had people say I should cancel it or I should postpone it or do it in the States. I was determined and praying every night since I started this, that we would find a window where it would be okay for us to come.
MP: So many people wanted to come. I have to tell you, as an old past president, I got a lot of phone calls. Hadassah women love Israel. Our biggest facilities are in Israel. If we could live here and be here and be in America at the same time, I think we would all do that.
TML: My next question is a little bit of a two-pronged question. It’s about looking toward the future. A lot of people have said that America is very divided. Would you say that Hadassah represents a cross-section of women, both Republican and Democrat? Is it a bipartisan organization? The next part of the question is sort of related. What do you think are the biggest challenges for women in America in general and also in terms of advocacy and supporting Israel? What are the things you’re most concerned about?
RS: Our organization has 300,000 women who are in every state in the United States. If you understand the geopolitical scene in America, we have women from the right to the left and in between. It is a fine line that we cross. I get love letters and I get hate letters. They react when they feel they need to.
When I was a young leader and a first president of a young leaders’ group, we were taught that Hadassah supports the sitting governments of the United States and of Israel. We don’t get involved in politics. We get involved when there are issues that impact women – not just Jewish women, but women – and then that also impact in America: Israel, Zionism, antisemitism, and things like that. In America, regardless of who’s the president or who’s the leadership, we believe in certain things that impact women: women’s health equity, women’s ability to be free for choice. We don’t support abortion, or we aren’t against it. We just say that in every aspect of our lives, a woman shouldn’t have a government or a man or anyone tell us what we should do, whether it’s with our bodies, with our vote, with our lives. That’s where we are. We’re very much about women’s empowerment.
In Israel, we really believe that it is not our right to us to tell Israelis how to vote or who to vote for and also how to live within the political world that exists at that moment.
We go to Washington, and we meet with senators, and we meet with congresspeople, representatives to talk about what's happening in their states with antisemitism and anti-Zionism.
TML: Can you expand a bit on looking towards the future; are there any things that concern you in particular?
RS: Like many organizations (including in Israel), the hardest thing is attracting and engaging the younger generations. Many of them are not joining. They don’t understand the need for community. In my generation and even the generation after mine, we felt a responsibility to join a synagogue. We felt a responsibility to join many different things because we were taught about community. Some of that was because our generation before us almost lost community from the war and everything else. So that became something that was passed down to us.
The younger generation now, many of them aren’t interested in joining organizations. They’re not even interested in joining their own schools’ Parent-Teacher Associations.
I just believe it’s a different mindset. We have created a new department called Evolve and it’s about evolving younger women and involving them to find out how we can engage them. It may look very different in the future. I am not afraid of change at all. I am afraid of not changing with the times, so we don’t exist.
But the truth of the matter is we haven’t found the magic pill yet with the younger women. It’s what we’re working on. We’re strategizing on many different things because we want to, and we will be, here for the next 100 years.