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Still relevant at 100

Local Hadassah members as proud as ever

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Marcie Natan, president of Hadassah, seen here on Friday, Feb. 24, 2012, holding a proclamation honoring the organization’s founding on Feb. 24, 1912. The ceremony took place at Temple Emanu-El in New York City, where the organization was founded a century ago. David Karp

In April 2006 ““ when Bayonne resident and former national Hadassah president Deborah Kaplan told The Jewish Standard that “Hadassah is not an association – it’s a way of life” – her own chapter was marking its 70th anniversary, while the Jersey City chapter, with which Bayonne had merged several years before, was celebrating its 85th year.

The Jersey City group was then the second oldest chapter in the state. The first was founded in Newark in 1914.

Kaplan, who said she had been involved with Zionist groups since she was 8 years old, added, “If Hadassah had not been founded by Henrietta Szold in 1912, we would still have needed to create such an organization.”

As the Women’s Zionist Organization of America now observes its centennial year, members continue to take pride in its many accomplishments.

Teaneck resident Miriam Aron, Kaplan’s daughter and a former president of the Northern New Jersey Region, says that while other organizations in Israel now offer some of the same services provided by Hadassah, “We do all of that, and more.”

She pointed out that not only did Hadassah build the infrastructure for a modern medical system in Israel, but it continues to maintain hospitals where – in her mother’s words – “our doctors perform miracles.”

Indeed, so noteworthy is the work of Hadassah’s two hospitals in Israel, one on Mt. Scopus and one in Ein Kerem, that in 2005, the group was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, said Montclair resident Karen Goldman, president of the Northern New Jersey Region.

“Our proudest achievement is our contribution to research and medicine,” she said. But even more, the group is devoted to saving lives, whether through the hospital, through youth aliyah, which rescued children from Europe during World War II, or through “giving a new start to kids at risk in Israel today.”

“The reason we were nominated for the Peace Prize is that our hospitals represent what peace would look like,” she said. “The staff is international and multi-racial, and treats anyone who comes to our doors. We’re incredibly proud.”

“When you come to our door, politics has no place,” said Aron, pointing out that since the Ein Kerem Hospital had grown “more expensive to retrofit than to rebuild from scratch,” the organization built a new facility, the Sarah Westman Davidson Hospital Tower, scheduled to receive its first patients later this month. According to Aron, this is the largest project the organization has ever undertaken in Israel.

Aron described Hadassah as an “evolving” organization. When there was no longer a need for its vocational high school in Israel, it opened up Hadassah College in Jerusalem instead. Similarly, when it became clear that the group could no longer be the sole sponsoring organization for Young Judaea, the youth group became a shared responsibility.

Goldman pointed out that the region – which takes its lead from that national organization and filters ideas down to the local chapters – has been heavily involved in supporting the new hospital facility, necessarily putting some other programs on hold. Nevertheless, the organization remains committed to advocacy, primarily for health-related issues, and to educating its own members.

The local connection

Hadassah has a strong presence in New Jersey, “going where the membership is,” said Aron.

She noted that southern New Jersey is seeing the growth of younger chapters, while some chapters in the northern region are composed primarily of older women.

While only women may be members, men may join as associates.

Many years ago, “We were smart enough to realize if we could get men involved on a certain level, it would add to our fundraising goals,” said Aron. “It’s our male connection – generally the husbands, sons, and grandsons of our members.”

According to Goldman – who said that the region’s 28 chapters embrace more than 11,000 members – Hudson County hosts the relatively new Hoboken Hadassah of Hudson County, founded by women in their 20s and 30s, as well as the much older chapter of Bayonne-Jersey City. Passaic County chapters include Dor Hadash (Wayne) and Clifton-Passaic; while Bergen County is home to the River Dell, TriBoro, Teaneck-Hackensack, Paramus- Bat Sheva, Pascack Valley/Northern Valley, Fair Lawn, Palisades, Northwest Bergen, and Englewood-Tikvah Chaverut chapters. The region also includes chapters in Essex, Morris, and Union counties.

To celebrate Hadassah’s centennial year, the organization ran a promotional membership campaign, adding 60,000 members nationally, said Goldman.

She noted that on March 22, many regional chapters will sponsor events to coincide with the national organization’s “Home Sweet Hadassah” initiative.

“Some chapters are organizing study groups to meet on that day,” she said, pointing out that Henrietta Szold first introduced her ideas about helping pre-state Israel to the women of her study group.

On May 6, the region is sponsoring a centennial-themed walkathon in New Overpeck Park, “where we will pass a virtual torch to commemorate Hadassah’s 100 years.” Then, on May 10, the region will hold a “Gala Centennial Dinner” in Springfield, where past and current region and chapter presidents will be recognized and new officers installed.

Finally, Hadassah’s national convention in Israel Oct. 15-18 will include an international centennial celebration, as well as the dedication of the Sarah Westman Davidson Hospital Tower.

In addition, said Goldman, “Many of our members were among the 1,400 attendees at the recent Centennial Shabbat service” at New York City’s Temple Emanu-El on February 24.

“Temple Emanu-El is regarded as the birthplace of Hadassah, since it was there that Hadassah was founded exactly one hundred years to the day on February 24, 1912,” she said. “Furthermore, February 24 was the yahrzeit of our founder, Henrietta Szold.”

More members, fewer workers

Aron remembers the founding of the Paramus Bat-Sheva chapter, which united the then-older Paramus group with the “young married women from the apartments in Hackensack.”

The Hackensack group, founded in the early 1970s by women eager to work for the organization, had “reached a point where people were moving into houses in different areas, and young women were not moving into Hackensack. So we merged with the Paramus chapter.”

That group, she said, had “more members, but fewer workers.”

With the young women willing to do the work, “it was a happy marriage,” she said, pointing out that while local chapters still run many activities, “The trend in many chapters is that it’s harder to get workers.” As a result, chapters are now pulling together to sponsor joint activities.

Paramus-Bat Sheva President Helaine Wohl said her chapter is following that trend.

In April, her group will participate in a fashion show fundraiser with three other chapters.

“It’s our first attempt at doing a joint fundraiser,” she said, noting that the average age of her more than 300 chapter members is 60 to 65. She estimates that some 85 men are affiliated as associates.

“I’m the baby, at 50,” she said, adding that while membership growth is not as steady as it had been in the past, “We got a lot of members last year through the $100 promotion for lifetime membership in honor of the centennial.”

Wohl, a member for 18 years, said she left the chapter temporarily to found one in Mahwah. “We kept it going for four years, but then it disbanded, and I came back,” she said.

The chapter president said she sees a future with fewer, larger chapters. “The demographics have changed,” she said. “Women are aging, or are snowbirds, so there are fewer active members.”

Some things do not change, however, she said, noting that “some join because they’re Zionists at heart and want to do something for Israel.”

In addition, she said, she receives constant e-mails from the regional office inviting members to go to Trenton to speak out on issues such as stem cell research.

Her chapter, she said, holds monthly meetings on a wide variety of topics, bringing in speakers on issues such women’s health, Zionism, and Jewish history, and offering “fun” activities such as cooking demonstrations.

The organization definitely faces some challenges, said Aron.

“Because of economics, many people don’t automatically volunteer their time or talents, and we know we will have to streamline, live within our funding,” said Aron. “Nowadays, to start and keep a new chapter involved is wonderful. In many areas, as people age or move away, we’ve had to merge or close some chapters, since there are not enough workers.”

She pointed out that while there may be a sizeable number of members, they may no longer be able to be active. One chapter, she said, has members whose average age is in the “high 80s, but they don’t want to close.”

In addition, said Goldman, in this economic climate, “Fundraising is a challenge for every nonprofit.”

Not your bubbe’s organization

Aron – whose mother made her a lifetime member when she was a young child – said that stories abound about her mot her (president of her chapter the year her daughter was born) pushing her around in a stroller as she performed her Hadassah duties.

When the daughter started her own household, “It was never a question of ‘Would I join?’ but what chapter I would join,” she said.

True to form, Aron, now national Hadassah chair for Young Judaea Israel programs and a past president and active member of the Paramus Bat-Sheva chapter, made certain to enroll her own three (now married) children in the organization. Her mother, she said, has remained active, as well, serving as national board member and chair of the organization’s Jewish National Fund department.

Goldman, too, “has been a lifetime member since [the concept] was introduced nationally. My mother was devoted to Hadassah. She said she started it, but I pointed out that she was born in 1914, so couldn’t have.”

Still, she joked, “If she thinks she did it, it’s okay.”

The regional president, originally from Teaneck, also remembers “eating cookies under the table” at meetings of the Teaneck chapter.

Hadassah is definitely a multi-generational affair, said Goldman, who “is hoping to activate young, multi-tasking women as well as women in their 60s and newly retired, who may have time to devote to the organization. We’re hoping to inspire them,” she said.

What she does not want to do is to alienate the older, devoted members who may feel increasingly isolated as the organization “is going green and embracing technology.”

“It’s important not to disenfranchise those ladies,” she said, adding that when she travels around the region to speak with different chapters, she offers to send someone there to give computer lessons. “I want to include them in a universe they’re being excluded from,” she said.

Nevertheless, at the Temple Emanu-el event on Fifth Avenue in February, “I saw the entire age spectrum,” she said, including women of all ages, as well as men.

She pointed out that during 2012, men can join as associates for life at a cost of $212.

“It’s amazing to see the interest still exhibited on the part of our octogenarians,” she said. “They come out regularly for our high-caliber education days.”

Goldman sees a bright future for the organization. “I see us continuing to do what we do, and even better than we do it now,” she said, “saving lives, rehabilitating, and having a younger generation to pass that message along. We’re multi-generational and we cherish interaction,” she said.

“We’re not their bubbe’s organization,” added Goldman. “We’re constantly re-evaluating and looking at strategic plans. It’s not business as usual, but business in an appropriate way – looking at the both the present and the future.”

For more information about Hadassah, and the Northern New Jersey Region, visit nnjregion@hadassah.org.

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