June Walker, Presidents' Conference head and former Hadassah leader, dies at 74

"Her love of Israel and its people was evident in everything she did and said."

June walker 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
June walker 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
June Walker, the chairwoman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a former national chairman of the Hadassah Women's Zionist Organization of America, died on Tuesday at the age of 74 after a long battle with cancer A resident of New Jersey, she was only the second woman to head the Presidents' Conference, and the first chairman to die in office. Only two weeks ago, she attended the 94th annual Hadassah convention in Los Angeles and showed no sign of her illness. Walker went a long way beyond the housewifely routines inculcated by her mother, who insisted that women should "iron their husbands' underwear." Born in the Bronx to US-born parents, Walker was the first woman in her family to go to university (where she studied chemistry and later respiratory therapy) and the first full-time professional to preside over a Hadassah region. "She was a great partner," Presidents' Conference executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein said. "June had a clear vision and was always ready to listen to others. Her determination and commitment were unparalleled even when she was weakened by the disease she fought for so many years. She struggled valiantly to overcome it. Just last week, she chaired several conference events. "Her love of Israel and its people was evident in everything she did and said. Her joy on receiving an honorary doctorate from Haifa University in June 2008 was indescribable. She took nothing for granted and was appreciative of every honor shown to her. Her excitement and devotion to the conference only grew during her tenure as she became intimately involved in every aspect of the conference's activities." The Presidents' Conference, which consists of the heads of 51 major American Jewish organizations, offered "heartfelt condolences to June's husband, Barry, to her children, David Walker, Ellen Walker and Julie Richman, her six grandchildren and nieces and nephews." Walker was described by Hoenlein as "a remarkable woman whose devotion to the well-being of others was the hallmark of her life. Artfully balancing precious time with her close family and the demands of top organization positions, June was a gifted leader who enjoyed the respect, admiration and affection of all. This was demonstrated by her unanimous election in 2007 and reelection this year as chairwoman of the Conference of Presidents by her peers, leaders of organizations from across the religious and political spectrum. "Leaders of the United States and Israel held her in high regard and respected the person even more than the positions she held. They, as we, recognized immediately her integrity, her intelligence and the sincerity of her advocacy." Harold Tanner, Walker's predecessor as chairman, added: "I am deeply saddened by the death of June Walker, who spent a lifetime serving the Jewish community. The conference and the entire community have lost an inspired leader. All of us who had the privilege of working with her have lost a good friend. Her death devastates us all and will leave a big void." The conference will appoint a committee to establish a fund in June's memory to sponsor a project consistent with her priorities and commitments. The Presidents' Conference has no formal succession apparatus. Walker was national president of Hadassah from 2003 to 2007; previously, she served as its treasurer. "It is with a very heavy heart that we begin to mourn June Walker, a unique leader and a wonderful friend to many," said Walker's successor at Hadassah, Nancy Falchuk. "June once said that Hadassah embodied everything she was interested in: Israel, women's empowerment, Judaism, education, medicine and Zionism. But June personified values that Hadassah stands for: pride, dedication, and spirit enhanced by her own personal grit." Falchuk described Walker as "an extraordinary person who led a full life, professionally and personally. As a trained respiratory therapist, she touched the lives of so many in her home state of New Jersey. As a devoted wife, mother and grandmother, June was able to instill in others the precious qualities she possessed - her pride in being a Jewish woman and a Zionist, her impressive leadership skills, and her uncanny ability to touch people from all walks of life and to make a positive impression on those around her. "This past year, she brought her entire family to Israel so they could experience firsthand the work she put into several programs and to show them her personal and professional pride in all Hadassah had achieved." In an interview with this reporter soon after her election as Hadassah national president, Walker said: "Fundraising always demands a lot from you. One has to tailor the message to the audience. The older generation of American Jews who remember the Holocaust and the day the State of Israel was established is gradually being replaced by Jews with no such memories, and who have to be inspired by other things." Thus Hadassah now talks "about Israel's healthcare needs and education to younger potential donors. We try to organize events of professional groups - doctors, nurses, lawyers and the like - and show Hadassah's achievements in these fields," Walker said. She was proud that more than half of Hadassah's members have visited Israel at least once - several times the rate of the general American Jewish population. Walker herself visited Israel more than 40 times.