Leah Felner has been involved in Hadassah for most of her life.
When she was growing up in Fair Lawn in the 1990s, her mother, Leslie Felner, was very involved in the organization, and Leah regularly helped out. She remembers counting out letters and stuffing envelopes, setting up for events, and observing the meetings her mom regularly hosted in the family home. And she’s been a life member of Hadassah for as long as she can recall.
Ms. Felner, now living in Jersey City and the director of alumni and constituent engagement at Manhattan’s Ramaz School, recently was selected as a member of Hadassah’s inaugural class of Evolve leadership fellows.
Hadassah, the largest Jewish women’s organization in the United States, supports two hospitals and two children’s villages in Israel, works to combat antisemitism in the United States, and advocates for women’s healthcare rights. The organization also hosts a variety of educational and social programs that build friendships and community.
Hadassah was founded 110 years ago, and many of its members have been involved in it for a long time. Evolve Hadassah is a relatively new initiative — it’s about three years old — designed to attract a new generation of members and leaders. Evolve caters to members under 55 and offers programming targeted to that age group. The new Evolve fellowship program is designed to give Hadassah’s next generation of leaders the tools to bring in new members.
The 10 women in the initial class are under 45 and come from all over the country. The year-long program, which started in July, includes several virtual training sessions that will familiarize them with Hadassah’s work and build leadership and communication skills. Sessions will feature some of Hadassah’s lay and professional leaders, including national president Rhoda Smolow and CEO Naomi Adler, and will help the women learn how to inspire others to advance Hadassah’s mission — supporting Israel, fighting antisemitism, and advocating for women’s health equity.
The cohort traveled to Israel in November, visited the Hadassah hospitals and youth villages, and met with Hadassah leaders and longtime members. They also toured contemporary and historic sites in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and explored issues affecting the country by visiting the Peres Center for Peace & Innovation, a Druze village, and a Gaza border area. At the end of the trip, the group joined Hadassah leadership and members at the organization’s 100th national convention in Jerusalem. Next summer, as the program ends, the group will attend another Hadassah gathering — this time in Chicago — and will meet with the incoming fellowship class.
When she initially was nominated to apply to join the fellowship, Ms. Felner was “a little nervous because I’d never participated in a program like this before,” she said. But because of her commitment to Hadassah’s work and the causes that Hadassah supports, she decided to start the application process and find out more about the program.
“And my mom assured me that she had not suggested my name,” she joked.
Ms. Felner’s mom is still very involved — Leslie Felner was installed as president of Hadassah’s Northern New Jersey region a few weeks ago — so Leah Felner did have a basis for wondering. She later found out that she had been nominated by a former president of the Northern New Jersey region and by a work colleague.
The application process alleviated some of her concerns. “The selection process made me feel really good about participating, because it was clear that they were not just looking to list a group of names on paper but were looking for people to really do something,” she said. “The goal was to find women who were invested in Hadassah and were willing and able to take on leadership roles.”
Hadassah does some very important work, Ms. Felner said. “There are two Hadassah hospitals in Israel, one of which has a huge maternity ward and creates incredibly detailed and supportive birthing plans for patients. There is a lot of research and innovation happening at both hospitals.
“We also operate two youth villages in Israel for children who don’t have homes or whose parents can’t care for them. The homes provide children with education and nurturing and attention, with everything they need to grow and mature. They also take in some refugee children — a group of nearly 60 children from Ukraine arrived recently.
“Hadassah also has an advocacy program in the United States, focused in large part on protecting women’s rights and women’s health. And Hadassah offers a variety of social and educational programming that brings women together and creates sisterhood and friendships and mentoring.”
So far, Ms. Felner is enjoying the program. “The trip gave us some background on modern Israel history,” she said. “We also discussed women’s leadership and making the world a better place through activism. It’s a wonderful opportunity to interact with, and learn from, veteran leaders as well as professional women around my age. The fellows are a diverse group. We are at different stages of life and doing different things professionally, but we share a love of Israel and an interest in furthering Hadassah’s important work.”
And the group has really meshed, she said. “We really enjoyed getting to know each other on the trip. Since then, our WhatsApp group chat has not stopped. We have shared everything from notes on presentations fellows have given to their local regions to Chanukah family pictures.”
The fellowship also is giving Ms. Felner a new perspective on leadership. “Hadassah is an organization run by women, and that’s not a common thing,” she said. “It’s exciting to learn from this model and to connect with the leaders and to have them as role models.”
The program lasts one year but participation is a two-year commitment, Ms. Felner continued. “At the end of the program, each fellow is tasked with getting involved in their local region or chapter and with finding a project that is meaningful to them and bringing it forward into a program.
“This involvement required during the post-fellowship year is actually both easy and hard,” she said. “It can be easy to just get involved — to sit in on meetings and offer ideas — but putting together a program requires figuring out what type of program you want to create and making it happen.
“The fellowship is designed to give us the tools to create a program but it gives us the freedom to choose an area that is meaningful to us,” she continued. “For example, the program can be focused on Holocaust remembrance, or it can consist of programming geared to Hadassah’s youth organizations. “
Ms. Felner plans to get involved in Hadassah’s Northern New Jersey region. She is interested in creating inter-generational programming — “like an adult version of mommy and me,” she said. “That’s actually something a lot of people associate with Hadassah but it’s not something that’s fully pursued now. I’m fascinated by family histories, and I’d love to create events involving intergenerational storytelling.”
She hopes these types of programs will also help bring in a new generation of members. “Many people my age don’t know about Hadassah,” Ms. Felner said. “The ones who do, it tends to be because their grandmother was involved in Hadassah or their mom was involved in Hadassah.”