The Human Spirit: At home with Zionism

But there was always another theme that ran like a current through our household: Israel above all.

Hadassah's role in education (photo credit: courtesy of Hadassah Women's Zionist Organization )
Hadassah's role in education
(photo credit: courtesy of Hadassah Women's Zionist Organization )
Back in Colchester, Connecticut, when I was a child, the members of Hadassah and those devotees of the synagogue sisterhood were feuding.
Usually it was my father who was involved in ideological battles. But now my mother was indignant. She was in the Hadassah camp. The synagogue parties to which she objected actually looked attractive to me, and I wondered why my sociable mother treated them with such disdain. “There aren’t enough resources in our small town for everything. Those parties are for fun,” she said. “Hadassah is for Israel.”
I was in high school when my father donated the money earmarked for our family vacation to the emergency fund for the Six Day War. “Vacation can wait,” he said. “Israel needs the funds now.”
We speak a lot about inculcating values in education. I’m a grandmother today, but I remember those messages about priorities loud and clear. The question I have been asked more than any other in my life is how my parents reacted to my decision to move to Israel immediately after graduating from college.
I have a pat answer. “They said they’d miss me, of course, but they were relieved that I didn’t do something less acceptable, wind up in jail for opposing the war in Vietnam or go off to an ashram like other students of the rebellious ‘60s.” Alternatively, “After all, I had prepared them for it for years of active participation in Young Judaea.”
Looking back with a little more humility, I may have prepared them, but they certainly had prepared me.
On one hand, we were such an American household: my father ran the often vitriolic town meetings and served on the school board. He was a justice of the peace and married couples in our living room on Sundays.
My mother taught reading as part of president Lyndon Johnson’s poverty program in our public school. But there was always another theme that ran like a current through our household: Israel above all.
This week, nearly 2,000 Hadassah members and male associates will be in Israel celebrating the centenary of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Although much will be said about billions of dollars collected through bake sales and thrift shops for health and education, the contribution of Hadassah to Israel is unquantifiable. Oil-rich neighbors with their expendable billions have not been able to accomplish the medical achievements of Israel.
LOOKING BACK, it’s not obvious that the women of Hadassah would have been successful in convincing a suspicious local population that they should accept newfangled Western health care. It wasn’t obvious that women would sign up for the nursing school that Hadassah opened in 1918. Nice girls didn’t leave home to live in a dormitory. Those first women graduates were tough enough to overcome their parents’ objections and then to push back the epidemics that threatened to engulf prestate Israel.
It wasn’t obvious that the doctors from so many countries fleeing Hitler would be able to work together in a Jerusalem-based, Americanstyle hospital. It wasn’t obvious that Hadassah would still be here contributing to Israel 100 years after those first meetings to focus on creating a healthy population in our homeland.
Hadassah’s remarkable story of building Israel will be retold many times this week – sometimes by me – but I’d like to pay tribute to the impact Hadassah had on all of us whose mothers’ core idealism was forged at Hadassah meetings. My mother-in-law belonged to a chapter in Long Island. Neither she nor my mother ever took on leadership positions in the organization. They were foot soldiers in the Zionist women’s army, like hundreds of thousands of others.
Much of their parents’ Eastern European Judaism was lost in their generation’s efforts to become American. But Hadassah preserved and developed what remained and turned its focus on Zionism.
A POIGNANT memory is spending a rainy afternoon in Hartford with my father, as he surprised my mother by having her modest life-membership pin soldered onto a beautiful antique gold pin he found in a jewelry store. When retirement approached and my parents began planning to leave Colchester – where every winter we had to dig our way out of snowdrifts at the door of our home – they decided to go east instead of south, to Israel.
Having a daughter already living there made it easier. My father died on the planning trip.
My mother made aliya by herself. Eventually she met the man who was to become my stepfather, a fellow New Englander. She was impressed that he was a pilot and that he’d “contributed” guns to the Hagana. But when he told her he was a Hadassah Associate (men can’t be full-fledged members) it provided a comfort level.
Soon after, my sister moved to Israel, too.
Just as we cannot imagine Israel without the medical and educational innovations sponsored by all those Jewish mothers who represented Hadassah, we cannot imagine the American Jewish community without Hadassah women doing the heavy lifting in their communities in fund-raising, demonstrations and Israel advocacy.
There’s that old joke that still makes me smile: “A bus of Hadassah women turns over and all are dispatched straight to heaven. But the admitting computer is down, and they have to wait. They are temporarily housed in Satan’s domain. A few hours later, Satan calls to protest: ‘They have been down here only a few hours and already they have raised $100,000 for a new air-conditioning system.’” I’m a life member, too, of course, but I wear the pin I inherited from my mother. I’ll be wearing it next week, to welcome my Zionist sisters.Happy 100th! The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.