You are here

Share Share Share Share Share Share Share

Hadassah in the United States

by Deborah Dash Moore

When seven women concluded on February 14, 1912, “that the time is ripe for a large organization of women Zionists” and issued an invitation to interested friends “to attend a meeting for the purpose of discussing the feasibility of forming an organization” to promote Jewish institutions in Palestine and foster Jewish ideals, they scarcely anticipated that their resolve would lead to the creation of American Jews’ largest mass-membership organization. Yet Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, became not only the most popular American Jewish organization within a short span of years, maintaining that preeminence to this day, but also the most successful American women’s volunteer organization, enrolling more women and raising more funds than any other national women’s volunteer organization.

From the beginning, ideals found expression in a language of specific tasks whose rationale reflected Hadassah’s emerging sense of mission. “You are going to learn by doing,” Henrietta Szold, Hadassah’s founder and first president, told a meeting of collegial Zionist women. “It amazed all who knew her,” recalled Margaret Doniger, a member of Hadassah’s National Board (1925–1977), “that this scholar, this woman who had been an editor up to that time … had unusual genius for leadership, for organization.” Szold demanded that Hadassah be exclusively a women’s organization: “Women will work better when there are only women in the group.” She insisted that “the group must … not begin until it has a project.” Doniger’s recollections highlight critical aspects of Hadassah’s approach to Zionism and its organizational philosophy.

The first meeting drew over thirty female Zionists to the vestry rooms of New York City’s Temple Emanu-El on February 24, 1912. At the meeting’s conclusion, almost two-thirds of those in attendance were elected officers or directors, suggesting the leadership opportunities Hadassah would offer women. The women involved included the seven signers of the invitation: Henrietta Szold, at age fifty-two, was the senior leader, deeply committed to Zionism as a political and moral movement of Jewish renewal; Mathilde Schechter was married to Solomon Schechter, the distinguished scholar, religious thinker, and president of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS); Emma Leon Gottheil traveled in elite Jewish and gentile social circles and was the wife of the Zionist leader Richard Gottheil; Rosalie Solomons Phillips, a wealthy and respected member of New York City’s oldest Sephardic congregation and a descendant of Revolutionary War hero Haym Salomon, participated in various Jewish and gentile societies and was married to N. Taylor Phillips; Sophia Berger led the Harlem Daughters of Zion study group; Lotta Levensohn, graduate of the Teachers Institute of JTS, worked as secretary to Rabbi Judah Magnes of the New York Kehillah and belonged to one of the three Daughters of Zion study groups that became a nucleus of Hadassah; and Gloria Goldsmith, at age twenty-one the youngest of the seven, had already helped found Young Judaea and enthusiastically supported Zionism as an expression of Jewish idealism.

The cooperation of these seven women indicates how the idea of Hadassah inspired support from a broad spectrum of American Jewish women. Despite differences in age, background, marital status, and wealth, Hadassah’s early leaders shared, in addition to their Zionism, strong Jewish educations and an eagerness to act in concert with other women at a time when women could not vote and were denied many of the perquisites of citizenship and independent action.

FORMATIVE YEARS, 1912–1933

Hadassah recruited a leadership cadre from women of Eastern European, German, and Sephardic backgrounds. The older women “gave Hadassah the high prestige of their moral support at a time when Zionism was neither fashionable nor popular, and individual Zionists were often regarded as crackpots,” Levensohn recalled. Many of the women, both young and middle-aged, were native-born college-educated American Jews. Their level of formal learning was unusual for women in this period and signified their cultural aspirations. Often mavericks in their social class, Hadassah leaders were attracted to Eastern European Jews not as objects of assimilation or as inferiors needing help but as “real” Jews: practical idealists. The first board of directors reflected the amalgamation of three groups: young women of the Daughters of Zion study circles, older prominent Zionists, and members of Alice Seligsberg’s ethics study group.

In its first year, Hadassah adapted aspects of women’s public activities to create a flexible Zionist organization. Aspiring to national stature, it modeled its structure on the National Council of Jewish Women. Local chapters linked women irrespective of class, marital status, age, or immigrant background. Although an area contained only one chapter, different groups reflected members’ particular interests, including study and sewing circles, English- and Yiddish-language groups, and daytime and evening meetings. Hadassah recruited women from varied socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, but many were working women—teachers, stenographers, shopgirls, and garment workers.

Seligsberg recalled that “for reasons of economy, we decided to hold parlor meetings only in houses provided with electric current since acetylene needed for lantern pictures would be an extra expense.” Lantern pictures conveyed Jewish women’s plight in Palestine and their need for adequate maternity care. Hadassah focused on women’s health issues, reflecting the social feminism of settlement house work. Especially influential was Lillian Wald’s Henry Street Settlement Visiting Nurse Service. In January 1913, with 122 members and $542 in dues collected, Hadassah agreed to support a nurse in Palestine for two years. Emma Gottheil’s sister, Eva Leon, who had worked with Jerusalem midwives, raised five thousand dollars from wealthy Chicago non-Zionists for a second nurse. Two weeks later, Rose Kaplan and Rachel [Rae] Landy sailed for Jerusalem, where they established Hadassah’s Nurses Settlement, a first step to “bring order to that land of chaos.”

The decision signaled organization growth. After Leon reported that the nurses needed guidance, Hadassah created a Palestine Advisory Committee in New York City to supervise them, setting an important precedent that policy decisions were to be made in America. In 1914, this committee evolved into the Central Committee, later becoming the National Board. By July 1913, Hadassah had chapters in Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and New York. Sarah Kussy, who founded Hadassah in Newark in 1914, described it as “composed not of swells, nor of the very poorest class of people,” but of “women who have regard for the meaning of a dollar.” In 1917, when Hadassah had fifty-three sewing circles, fourteen asked for Zionist literature to be read aloud as the women sewed. Of these circles, ten requested English literature and four Yiddish. From the outset, self-education was a central feature of Hadassah’s social activities. Jessie Sampter initiated its modest education program in 1913. “A song is not enough,” Sampter declared. In the fall of 1914, the Hadassah School of Zionism opened to provide “intellectual substance,” to counteract Christian missionaries, and to prepare Hadassah women to speak in public. Hadassah also started Hadassah Bulletin. On June 19, 1914, Hadassah held its first national convention in Rochester, New York, where it officially adopted the name Hadassah and its purpose: “to promote Jewish institutions and enterprises in Palestine and to foster Zionist ideals in America.” Hadassah had already chosen a motto, suggested by Israel Friedlaender, from Jer. 8: 19–23, Arukhat Bat Ami, translated as “The Healing of the Daughter of My People,” and a seal, designed by Victor Brenner, of myrtle [hadas] branches around a Jewish star. It affiliated with the Federation of American Zionists (FAZ).

Hadassah introduced many innovations to Zionist organization and ideology. Male leaders of FAZ criticized Hadassah, its women’s division, for not engaging in Zionist work designed to change Jews into a self-conscious political entity. Hadassah, they claimed, merely did Palestinian work or charitable endeavors meant to improve Jewish living conditions. In fact, Hadassah’s decision to establish an urban nurses’ settlement ran counter to Zionist emphasis on cooperative rural settlements and European methods of colonization. Hadassah stressed women-to-women work on humanitarian and religious grounds, as well as American social feminism. Hadassah’s Zionism was distinctly nonideological, a form of practical idealism that Szold considered characteristically Jewish. “Zionism as we dreamed it in America,” Sampter wrote in 1921, “was the dream of a regenerate humanity.” Hadassah also avoided religious controversy: The only two holidays it celebrated were Purim and Hanukkah. Hadassah urged its members to express their Jewish identification through work for Palestine. As Hadassah’s first president from 1912 to 1921, Szold wanted to mold “a compact, self-reliant organization … to foster solidarity, to weld thousands of women scattered all over the country into a homogeneous group.” Hadassah actively recruited non-Zionists. It resisted efforts to decentralize and established an administration fund—a novelty in Jewish organizational circles—to cover costs of its central administration.

World War I challenged Hadassah, which had 34 chapters and 2,100 members when the United States entered the war. Turkish repression of Zionist activities in Palestine forced Hadassah to close its Nurses Settlement in 1915. At home, domestic politics strained Hadassah’s unity. Many leaders, including Szold, Seligsberg, Levensohn, Sampter, Nellie Straus, and Gertrude Goldsmith Rosenblatt (who married the Zionist activist Bernard Rosenblatt), identified themselves as progressives and advocated socialism, racial equality, and, most important, pacifism. Other leaders, including Gottheil, Berger, and Ruth Bernard Fromenson, ardently supported the Allies. At a protracted meeting on the issues in October 1917, Szold agreed to resign from the antiwar People’s Council for Peace and Democracy for the sake of Hadassah. Judith Epstein, whose mother was part of the group that organized Hadassah, remembered that controversial meeting: “I returned to my new home at one a.m. to find that my husband had called the police!” The Gottheil faction withdrew from Hadassah in 1921, although both groups worked together to raise the thousands of dollars required to fund the American Zionist Medical Unit (AZMU), consisting of forty-five physicians, dentists, and nurses, as well as tons of supplies.

Seligsberg headed AZMU, which arrived in Palestine in 1918 and established hospitals in six cities: Jerusalem, Haifa, Jaffa, Tiberias, Tel Aviv, and Safed. The hospitals followed Hadassah’s policy of providing services to all regardless of race, color, or creed. This reflected the progressive commitments of Hadassah’s leaders and set an important precedent, initially established by the Nurses Settlement, of treating equally Arabs and Jews. “What we have sent to Palestine,” Hadassah reported, “is not a relief expedition, but rather an embryonic Department of Health, the nucleus of a permanent institution.” As soon as municipal authorities were prepared to run the hospitals, Hadassah turned them over. Hadassah rejected Zionist policy of creating institutions only for Jews in Palestine and refused to join the yishuv’s political structure.

In 1918, Hadassah joined the restructured Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), despite doubts about its district plan of organization. During the war, Hadassah had moved into separate office space—thus removing its administration from its leaders’ homes—and cooperated with Zionist men in organizing AZMU. Yet Hadassah soon discovered its loss of autonomy. As part of the ZOA, it surrendered its practical program and authority, two key elements of its organizational identity. Nevertheless, its membership kept on increasing—by 1922 Hadassah had over twelve thousand enrolled—while the membership of ZOA declined. In 1920, after seven members of Hadassah’s Central Committee were expelled from the building and told they had to resign because the committee refused to raise money for the Zionist fund Keren Hayesod, Hadassah began to reassert its autonomy. It started the Hadassah Newsletter nineteen months after it had discontinued the Bulletin. Rose Gell Jacobs, a charter member of Hadassah, became editor. The Central Committee also authorized the creation of Junior Hadassah, for girls eighteen and older, despite competition with Young Judaea, the Zionist youth movement. The young women immediately adopted the care of war orphans, a project started by AZMU that lacked adequate funds. Szold suggested their motto: “A joyful mother of children.” By 1923, Junior Hadassah had its own leaders. Frieda Silbert of Boston served as its first chair, and Mignon Levin Rubenovitz, a graduate of Columbia University’s Teachers College and early Hadassah member, was senior adviser.

By 1921, Hadassah began its steady rise to prominence. Seligsberg, who had returned from two years in Palestine, was elected president as Szold departed for Palestine. Although she returned and served again as president for three years beginning in mid-1923, Szold effectively passed on the leadership to younger women. By mid-1926, when Hadassah almost achieved autonomy in its program, Irma Levy Lindheim became president. Under her leadership, Hadassah initiated its first partnership with the Jewish National Fund. When Lindheim could not continue in a second term because of family problems, Zip Falk Szold, a Bryn Mawr graduate and wife of Henrietta Szold’s cousin Robert Szold, accepted the position in 1928. The presidency was “mostly hard, hard work. It was something that I could not put down.” She had loved being organization chair, keeping tabs on Hadassah’s growth and activities throughout the country. Growth registered in numbers—by 1928 membership reached a peak of over thirty-seven thousand—while activities demonstrated a commitment for practical work in Palestine, infused with Zionist idealism. Each project’s specificity enabled members to identify with the individual undertakings. These included the Hadassah School of Nursing (1919), an urban recreation program (1928), a school lunch program (1923), as well as health and day care centers and a children’s village. Each project reflected and reinforced Hadassah’s initial social feminism. As Seligsberg explained about the nursing school: “The idea was (1) as soon as possible to turn over the work of nursing to the people of Palestine so that the supply of nurses would be indigenous and normal; (2) to give useful work to the unemployed; (3) to educate the young Jewish girls of Palestine and their parents to respect women’s work. …” Many Jewish parents considered nursing an immodest profession, inappropriate for women.

Patterns established during the formative years were subsequently strengthened and reinforced. Hadassah maintained its social feminism, Progressive political commitments, and understanding of Zionism as a movement to renew Jewish practical idealism. It also remained staunchly protective of its autonomy, its focus on specific projects helping women and children, and its openness to women of all backgrounds. Its leaders continued to include an elite of educated women, who drew young women into their ranks. The latter testified to the formative influence of Szold and Epstein. Hadassah fostered close personal ties with the land of Israel, and many early leaders spent years living in Palestine, while a significant number of Hadassah’s presidents settled there.

CONSOLIDATION AND GROWTH, 1933–1953

Only in 1933 did Hadassah achieve complete independence from the ZOA, although it remained affiliated with the World Zionist Organization (WZO). Hadassah’s organizational, political, and ideological autonomy allowed it to chart its own distinctive course as a women’s organization, to consolidate its achievements, to initiate new projects, and to expand its membership.

Hadassah entered the family lives of many American Jewish women: Its leaders often were daughters of mothers who had been Hadassah activists. These mothers transmitted a love of Zionism and Palestine to their daughters who, if they were lucky, actually visited the land of Israel as did Miriam Freund-Rosenthal in 1935 and Sara Nachamson Evans in 1933. The eldest of eight daughters, Evans accompanied her mother, Jennie Nachamson, who founded Hadassah in North Carolina in 1919 after an inspiring meeting with Szold in Baltimore. Evans subsequently organized for Hadassah throughout the South in the 1940s and 1950s, gaining a reputation as Hadassah’s “Southern accent.” All eight Nachamson daughters served as presidents of local chapters.

Such family connections contributed to Hadassah’s impressive growth. From 1935 to 1945, Hadassah’s membership increased from over thirty-eight thousand to over 142,000, and in 1952 Hadassah reached a new peak of almost 275,000 members. The pace did not slacken until 1953. Critical to its broad appeal was the increase in the numbers of native-born American Jews who found its brand of American Zionism compelling, as well as Hadassah’s decision to adopt Youth Aliyah in 1934. “One of the most effective movements in human rehabilitation to emerge from an era of unprecedented cruelty and destruction” in Etta Rosensohn’s opinion, Youth Aliyah was perhaps Hadassah’s most popular practical project.

Tamar De Sola Pool, Hadassah’s president from 1939 to 1943, recalled suggesting the idea to the National Board in 1934 when she was president of the New York chapter. Jacobs, then in her second term as Hadassah’s president (1934–1937), went to Palestine to investigate the nascent program of Youth Aliyah initiated by Recha Freier from Berlin, in response to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. The choice lay between Youth Aliyah or vocational education. “Jacobs, the pragmatist and superb organizer, came back with a contract, making Hadassah sole representative of Youth Aliyah in America and guaranteeing a contribution of sixty thousand a year.” In fact, Hadassah raised $125,000 in the first year under Marian Greenberg’s chairmanship. In 1933, however, Hadassah’s total collections had plummeted to $161,697 from $365,000 in 1932, and only $45,860 was collected in 1934 for Youth Aliyah.

Szold agreed to direct the program of rescuing young people from Germany and bringing them to Palestine to settle on kibbutzim and in youth villages. Taking young people from their parents, who it was hoped would follow them to Palestine, Hadassah became their foster parents, nurturing and educating them. Szold dedicated the last twelve years of her life to Youth Aliyah and definitively shaped it into an educational movement and national organization of rescue. Hadassah’s practical idealism put it in the forefront of American Jewish organizations: It began to rescue Jews from Nazism before any other Zionist group by choosing a project that continued its social feminist orientation as a women’s organization. By 1967, every tenth Israeli under fifty was a Youth Aliyah graduate.

Jacobs not only secured Hadassah’s sponsorship of Youth Aliyah but also initiated construction of the Rothschild-Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, designed by architect Eric Mendelsohn. Rose Halprin, who settled in Palestine after finishing her first term as Hadassah president (1932–1934), served on the building committee. “Sometimes, we were penny-wise and pound-foolish,” she recalled. “I remember we had to decide whether to put an insignia on the floor in marble.” The cost was perhaps $250, but “the vote was against it because it was too much money. Now I always giggle every time I think back on that period.” Yet a beautiful hospital emerged, opening in 1939. In 1936, Hadassah and the Hebrew University, also located on Mount Scopus, agreed to establish a joint graduate school of medicine, inaugurated in 1938. World War II transformed the new hospital into a medical center for the entire region. In 1942, Hadassah opened its vocational school for girls, named in honor of Alice Seligsberg.

Despite its focus on Palestine projects, Hadassah also experimented with new ways to foster Zionist ideals in America. In 1934, it continued its early work in adult education by sponsoring the School for the Jewish Woman under the direction of Trude Weiss-Rosmarin. The school conducted afternoon and evening classes for married and single women: Its curriculum included Hebrew, Bible, Talmud, Jewish history, and ethics. But turbulent relations between Hadassah and the school’s strong-willed director soon led to the school’s dissolution. Hadassah also helped establish the American Zionist Youth Commission in 1940, directed by Shlomo Bardin. The programs of leadership training it sponsored proved quite successful both for Young Judaea and Junior Hadassah, and paved the way for Hadassah supervision of the former. The Speaker’s Bureau, which had initially enlisted the aid of Miss Manners, became well established and helped spread Hadassah’s message throughout the country. It continued to provide lessons in public speaking for women, so critical to their assumption of leadership positions within Hadassah. The Newsletter changed its format to include articles on contemporary issues by well-known public figures. In America, Hadassah leaders often cooperated with individuals associated with the newly established Reconstructionist Movement. Both shared a common attachment to American democratic progressive traditions as well as a deep dedication to Zionism as an international Jewish movement of renewal.

Hadassah forged an independent political path in the Zionist movement. In 1937, it ran its own slate of eighteen delegates to the WZO Congress. It supported the Biltmore Platform of 1942 calling for a Jewish state, even though it had abstained from the prewar debate on the partition of Palestine. Epstein, president of Hadassah for a second term (1943–1947) during the years immediately preceding the establishment of a state, later articulated Hadassah’s expectation: “We wanted a Jewish state and a Jewish society. And it was self-evident among Hadassah members that Jewish society would be constituted on the elements of equality, justice, and humanism.” Representing Hadassah, Epstein testified before the Anglo-American Board of Inquiry in 1946 to get the British to open Palestine to Jewish refugees. Halprin, whose second term as president (1947–1952) followed Epstein’s, explicitly rejected any glorification of the State of Israel: “The State is merely a vessel. It is not a purpose in itself. A State is a means to an end. The end is the content of the state.”

Hadassah worked actively on the American political scene to support the establishment of a Jewish state. Women spread the word in their local communities in favor of partition. The personal cost of founding the State of Israel hit Hadassah on April 13, 1948. That night, Arabs ambushed and murdered seventy-five nurses, physicians, and technicians, including Dr. Hayim Yassky, head of the Hadassah Medical Organization, in a convoy on its way to Mount Scopus. Faced with the inability to protect its staff, Hadassah evacuated the medical center it had worked so hard to build, leaving it under Israeli army guard. In 1952, during Rosensohn’s presidency, Hadassah broke ground at Ein Kerem to build for the second time a medical center in Jerusalem.

Hadassah’s efforts to recruit new members after the establishment of Israel on May 14, 1948, emphasized the relationship of Zionist ideals and American democratic values. “Ever greater numbers of Jewish women should be drawn into Hadassah where they have the opportunity to work on two fronts: as Zionists, for the welfare of the Jewish people in Israel, and as Americans, for a democratic America and a democratic world to help bring peace and security to peoples everywhere.” New chapters organized that year reflected the suburbanization of American Jews. Hadassah appeared on Long Island from Levittown to Hollis Hills, in New Jersey from Princeton to Deal, and in Maryland from Silver Spring to Chevy Chase. Irene Ruza joined Young Judaea, but instead of going to Palestine as a pioneer, she went to Hunter College in New York and married. “When I joined the great ‘exodus’ to Queens suburbia, Hadassah found me—to my eternal gratitude.” Ruza gradually moved up from president of the Hollis Hills Chapter to the National Board.

Hadassah effectively negotiated the transition from a “small, compact organization” to a large, national one during years of world war and the destruction of European Jews. It adapted its Zionist practical idealism to the political reality of the State of Israel by becoming one of the founding constituents of the World Confederation of General Zionists. Hadassah has a seat on the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Zionist General Council. It is also accredited with the United Nations as a nongovernmental organization. Hadassah integrated its democratic American commitments into its social feminism.

MASS-MEMBERSHIP ORGANIZATION, 1953–1976

“Those were the days when if you sat next to a woman, your first question was, ‘Are you a member of Hadassah?’ If the answer was ‘No,’ you signed her up on the spot,” Rose Dorfman recalled of the 1950s. Hadassah membership drives reached all sections of the country, all states in the union. Young women, mostly married with children and barred from working outside the home by strong social conventions, joined Hadassah for its sociability, its idealism, and the opportunities it offered to learn and to acquire new skills, including those of leadership. As in previous decades, Hadassah recruited women from varied backgrounds. “When I came to the United States thirty and some years ago, Hadassah became my ticket to the New World,” Sara Rosen recalled. “In a way, I received an introduction to the idea of women’s lib many years before it became a household word. … I never imagined, nor had I ever seen, so many independent, accomplished women working together for a cause that did not in any way benefit them personally,” she marveled. “Physically remote from the land of Israel, oftentimes removed from Jewish tradition by generations, they nevertheless basked in their Jewishness, and were eager to learn. Hadassah was the ‘shaliah,’ the messenger, which inspired them.” The constant recruitment offset normal attrition: Only after the Six Day War of 1967 did membership increase steadily to a new high of 360,000 by 1977.

A successful mass-membership organization, Hadassah’s presence registered forcefully on the American scene. Its decision to upgrade its monthly Newsletter into Hadassah Magazine made visible its substantial achievements. Because of its wide circulation to all members, the Magazine quickly became self-supporting through advertising. Hadassah continued to sponsor publications to educate its members further. Among its most notable were two anthologies that became classics: The American Jew: A Composite Portrait (1942), edited by Oscar I. Janowsky, and Great Ages and Ideas of the Jewish People (1956), edited by Leo W. Schwarz. When the Conference of Presidents of Major American Organizations was organized in 1956, Hadassah became a constituent member. In 1970, Hadassah was a founding member of the reorganized American Zionist Federation. In 1967, when the ZOA withdrew financial support from Young Judaea, Hadassah merged Junior Hadassah with Young Judaea into Ha-Shahar [The dawn] and restructured the summer camp activities, leadership training, and study scholarships in Israel that it had sponsored since 1940. As well, Hadassah assumed financial responsibility for all youth programs. “Unfortunately, the merger basically destroyed Junior Hadassah,” Barbara Goldstein concluded, and with it “a movement that identified with and loved its parent, Hadassah. Our National Board officers used as their role models National Presidents of Hadassah. I am no exception.” The issue of an aging membership would not be felt, however, until the 1980s.

Although Hadassah continued to turn over many of its health centers and programs to municipalities or the Israeli government, it also initiated new projects in both health and education, such as a model family and community health program in a poor Jerusalem neighborhood, Kiryat ha-Yovel, in 1953 and the Rural Vocational Guidance Center at Kefar Vitkin in 1952. The latter offered education and training for Arab as well as Jewish youth, maintaining Hadassah’s well-established policy of providing equal treatment. In 1968, Hadassah designated the nonmedical aspects of its Israel program as “Hadassah-Israel Education Services.”

Perhaps Hadassah’s biggest postwar achievement was the rapid construction of the Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem. In cooperation with the Hebrew University, Hadassah established a teaching and research hospital with over fifteen medical departments, as well as a school of dentistry and pharmacy. Freund-Rosenthal dedicated the new buildings in 1960, the last year of her presidency. She also convinced the famous Jewish artist, Marc Chagall, to design twelve stained-glass windows for the hospital’s chapel at a modest cost of one hundred thousand dollars by making her request “not only on behalf of Hadassah, but on behalf of the Jewish people.” The windows received widespread critical acclaim. Then, in 1967, Israel’s stunning victory in the Six Day War reunited the divided city of Jerusalem, and Hadassah discovered itself once more in possession of its hospital on Mount Scopus. “For Hadassah—rejoicing in the greatest gift in 19 years—the return of our buildings on Mt. Scopus is tempered by the knowledge that the ground on which we shall build is soaked with the blood of precious youth,” Charlotte Jacobson wrote in her president’s column that year. In 1975, Hadassah rededicated its restored and rebuilt hospital on Mt. Scopus.

In 1968, Hadassah subscribed to the Jerusalem Platform of the World Zionist Congress, including the unity of the Jewish people and centrality of Israel, the ingathering of Jews in their historic homeland, strengthening the State of Israel, preserving Jewish identity through education, and protection of Jewish rights everywhere. Hadassah previously had joined the struggle to free Soviet Jewry, and many of its presidents had made aliyah to Israel. In 1969, it sent the first group aliyah, graduates of Young Judaea, to settle in Neve Ilan near Jerusalem. Four years later, on Thanksgiving Day, graduates of Ha-Shahar founded Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava Valley.

Hadassah continued to draw women from diverse backgrounds into its top ranks of leadership. Lola Kramarsky, president from 1960 to 1964, left Holland with her husband and three children just before the Nazis invaded. Faye Schenk, president from 1968 to 1972, was the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi. She married a rabbi and spent ten years in Australia before returning to the United States. Rose Matzkin, president from 1972 to 1976, was born on Ellis Island, the day her mother arrived in the United States. She joined Hadassah immediately after she married. Like many Hadassah leaders, she also joined other organizations, like the League of Women Voters and the Red Cross. “For those of us who came to maturity—real maturity—during the years of the Holocaust, the opportunity to try to do something for Jews outweighed almost everything else. …” Hadassah offered that opportunity. Others, like Rebecca Shulman, president from 1953 to 1956, grew up in a Zionist family and continued the Zionist tradition through Hadassah. The tradition of leadership, social feminism, and Zionism, passed on from mothers to daughters, carried Hadassah to new heights during the 1970s, making it the preeminent American Jewish women’s organization.

THE CHALLENGE OF CONTEMPORARY FEMINISM, 1976–PRESENT

In 1980, Hadassah commissioned a survey, sensing that its blend of Zionism, social feminism, and practical idealism was not reaching a new generation of Jewish women eager to pursue careers and unwilling to join an organization identified with their mothers and grandmothers. The survey revealed the gradual graying of Hadassah members, a decline in the percent of younger members who considered themselves Zionists, a wide diversity of religious affiliation, and increasing levels of education among younger members. Hadassah remained predominantly an organization of married women, attracting only a minority of single or divorced women. Half of the women polled who worked full time had never been members of Hadassah. Feminist feelings were widespread among all women surveyed, while Zionist sentiment was not.

The survey did not document that, along with its success, Hadassah had acquired a host of negative stereotypes. “Hadassah ladies” appeared to young feminists to be the antithesis of the new Jewish woman they hoped to create through the feminist movement and Jewish feminism. New magazines like Lilith challenged Hadassah’s priorities, the character of its meetings, even its existence as a women’s organization that seemed to acquiesce in separate and unequal representation of women in American Jewish communal life. Hadassah’s historic role mattered less to these critics than its current agenda. In fact, Hadassah admitted men as associate members in 1966, and men always attended national conventions, albeit as observers (and often critics). But Hadassah’s feminism never involved a critique of patriarchy, though it supported the Equal Rights Amendment. Hadassah responded to contemporary feminism by increasing its identification with Israel, becoming active in international women’s conferences, and initiating a new series of educational programs.

In 1978, Hadassah held its first national convention in Israel, letting Israelis glimpse the women behind the health institutions. Hadassah had started tours to Israel in the 1960s, including some that focused on the Bible, but these drew small numbers. The Jerusalem convention attracted a record twenty-eight hundred members from forty-five states. In the 1980s, Hadassah also began to organize throughout the world under the auspices of the Hadassah Medical Organization because the Women’s International Zionist Organization (wizo) broke an unwritten agreement made with Szold that America would be the exclusive province of Hadassah. When WIZO began to organize in the United States, Hadassah created the Hadassah Medical Relief Association, later Hadassah International, in 1983. Hadassah in Israel, made up of former members who had settled there, became its first incorporated chapter. Bernice S. Tannenbaum, president from 1976 to 1980, instigated these initiatives.

When Carmela Efros Kalmanson became Hadassah’s nineteenth president in 1988, she recalled: “The first plank in my platform involved returning to the basics that launched us as a distinct movement in the Zionist dream. Hadassah was founded as a study group. … I wanted to see us studying together again.” In 1989, Hadassah published Jewish Marital Status, its first step in programming to reach unaffiliated families. “More than an educational tool, it was to serve as a catalyst for informed action,” reported Carol Diament, Hadassah’s director of National Jewish Education. Over sixty seminars on Jewish family issues were conducted throughout the United States. In 1991, Hadassah held a three-day symposium devoted to “Israeli and American Jews: Understanding and Misunderstanding.” The event, and subsequent one-day symposia on university campuses, involved collaboration with scholars and activists, including feminist women who previously had rejected Hadassah.

In 1997 Hadassah established the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (originally The Hadassah International Research Institute on Jewish Women at Brandeis University), the first university-based research institute devoted to the study of Jewish women. The Institute supports a broad base of interdisciplinary study, underwriting scholarly research, publications and conferences that seek to promote a greater understanding of Jewish women’s historical and contemporary experiences.

Such initiatives have not halted the aging of Hadassah’s membership, but they do reflect creative engagement with issues important to Jewish women at the close of the twentieth and the early twenty-first century, as well as continuity with Hadassah’s own history. Innovations accompanied regular Hadassah programs of medical research and care, Youth Aliyah, education, and reclamation of the land through cooperation with the Jewish National Fund. In 1991, Deborah Kaplan assumed the presidency of Hadassah’s 385,000 members who raised $74,432,000 that year. In 2003, these members gave ninety-four million dollars towards, among other campaigns, the building of a new Center for Emergency Medicine at the Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem. The seven signers of that first invitation eighty years earlier would have been impressed. With a dedication to practical idealism, they built a large organization of women Zionists who continue to be, in the words of current President June Walker, “highly motivated practical Zionists, always finding concrete ways to improve the lives of the citizens of Israel.”

National Hadassah Presidents 1912–2004: Henrietta Szold 1912–1920, 1923–1926; Alice L. Seligsberg 1921–1923; Irma Lindheim 1926–1928; Zip Szold 1928–1930; Rose Jacobs 1930–1932, 1934–1937; Rose L. Halprin 1932–1934, 1947–1952; Judith Epstein 1937–1939, 1943–1947; Tamar de Sola Pool 1939–1943; Etta Rosensohn 1952–1953; Rebecca Shulman 1953–1956; Miriam Freund-Rosenthal 1956–1960; Lola Kramarsky 1960–1964; Charlotte Jacobson 1964–1968; Faye L. Schenk 1968–1972, Rose E. Matzkin 1972–1976; Bernice S. Tannenbaum 1976–1980; Frieda S. Lewis 1980–1984; Ruth W. Popkin 1984–1988; Carmela E. Kalmanson 1988–1991; Deborah B. Kaplan 1991–1995; Marlene Post, 1995–1999; Bonnie Lipton 1999–2003; June Walker 2003–.

Bibliography

Evans, Eli. The Lonely Days Were Sundays: Reflections of a Jewish Southerner (1993); Freund-Rosenthal, Miriam, ed. A Tapestry of Hadassah Memories (1994); Gal, Allon. “Hadassah and the American Jewish Political Tradition.” In An Inventory of Promises: Essays in Honor of Moses Rischin, edited by Jeffrey S. Gurock and Marc Lee Raphael (1995); Hadassah. Archives, NYC; Hadassah Annual Report (1929–1930, 1947–1948, 1966–1967); Kutscher, Carol Bosworth. “The Early Years of Hadassah: 1912–1921.” Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University (1976); Levin, Marlin. Balm in Gilead: The Story of Hadassah (1973); Miller, Donald H. “A History of Hadassah 1912–1935.” Ph.D. diss., New York University (1968); Weisburgh, Aileen. Hadassah chronology (October 1993).

Wyner, Gussie - still image [media]
Full image

Gussie Wyner, an early leader of Hadassah, created the idea of life membership in women's organizations. She is shown here in a photograph taken in July 1931, turning the first shovel of soil for a new maintenance building and power plant at Beth Israel Hospital, Boston. The building was paid for by the proceeds of the Life Membership Fund of the Beth Israel Women's Auxiliary, which she founded.

Institution: American Jewish Historical Society

How to cite this page

Moore, Deborah Dash. "Hadassah in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 23, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/hadassah-in-united-states>.

Donate

Help us elevate the voices of Jewish women.

donate now

Sign Up for JWA eNews

 

Discover Education Programs

Join our growing community of educators.

view programs