Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization, has had its share of negative attention of late. A major victim of the Madoff Ponzi scheme, it continues to face financial challenges, and a top executive recently accused several lay leaders of improper use of funds.
But as the largest Jewish organization in America prepares to celebrate its centennial, it’s important to step back and look at the remarkable accomplishments over the last 10 decades of a group 300,000 members strong.
Today, exactly a century after Hadassah was founded, it is difficult to imagine the chutzpah behind Henrietta Szold’s vision and mission.
In 1912, American women did not have the right to vote and were far from empowered, the State of Israel was still a dream and modern Zionism was in its earliest stage, with only tenuous support.
But Szold, who had visited Palestine and seen the dire need for health care, issued an invitation for a Feb. 24 meeting at Temple Emanu-El, then located at Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street, which read in part: “The time is ripe for a large organization of women Zionists” for “the promotion of Jewish institutions in Palestine and the fostering of Jewish ideals.”
“If we are Zionists … what is the good of meeting and talking and drinking tea?” Szold asked the 38 women who gathered that day. “Let us do something real and practical — let us organize the Jewish women of America and send nurses and doctors to Palestine.”
The rest, of course, is history. From Szold’s first mission, sending two nurses to Palestine to provide pasteurized milk to infants, Hadassah has led the way in health care to all in Israel, regardless of race or religion. Its network of 130 hospitals and research facilities is a worldwide leader in the medical field. And in addition to being a major force in promoting Zionism and women’s rights, it helped rescue European children during World War II, and its Youth Aliyah program and vocational schools have been an anchor for Israel’s educational system.
It’s an inspiring, remarkable story in Jewish life. But like virtually all Jewish organizations, Hadassah has struggled in recent years to attract a younger generation focused on balancing careers and family life. And the very enthusiasm and hands-on involvement of its lay leaders has created tension at times for its professional staff.
With it all, though, as Hadassah marks the anniversary of its founding with a special Shabbat service for members, families and friends this Friday night at Temple Emanu-El, the organization can take pride in its history of achievements, a living reminder of the power to “do something real and practical,” in the words of Henrietta Szold, and to transform an idea into a movement for good.
May Hadassah continue to grow and inspire us all in the next 100 years.
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