Giving Back
09/10/08
Special to the Jewish Week
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Hers was a busy home while Hadassah Freilich was growing up in Gardener, Mass. With her father the rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue and her mother busy in the community, young Hadassah grew up with a sure sense that Jews took care of others. That if someone was hungry, you fed him. “I knew from my mother there was always that sensitivity in the Jewish community, that you opened your house to a stranger,” says the grown-up Hadassah, who now shares a last name with her husband, the independent U.S. senator from Connecticut and one-time vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman. Her husband’s family was also deeply involved in doing good work to help the less fortunate. “I always heard stories about how my mother-in-law would put money away for those who needed it for Shabbat. Women banded together. This was the way they helped members of their community,” Lieberman said in an interview from an office near the Stamford, Conn., home she shares with her husband. It all left an impression on Hadassah, who was born in a Prague refugee camp to Holocaust survivor parents, and came to America with her family as a very young girl. The message of Jewish care for others stayed with her, and it is something she brings along on her travels around the world with her husband. Most recently, she has been interested in micro-finance efforts she has seen at work in Israel, in the West Bank, in Asia and much closer to home as well. Micro- financing, which has gained traction as a model of philanthropic investment, gives small loans to women, usually, who then use it to start or expand cottage industries. The loans are paid back, the money used to fund more loans. Lieberman has seen the model working well all over. “I’ve met with people all over the place, in the Ethiopian community in Israel, in Chicago for another program. In Ramallah there were Arab women doing this kind of work. I’ve been in New Delhi and Beijing and seen it. I go with Joe but I have separate involvement in these projects,” Lieberman says. “Having been an immigrant, when I watch how these women try to make a living baking bread or weaving baskets, and then allow members of their family or community to become part of this constructive economy, I understand it” she says. “There’s no better way to help people. Giving people bread and medicine I know is important when they’re in need, but you hope you can get them independent.” She views it as an inherently Jewish model of philanthropy. “This concept of how we need to help people help themselves is within the Jewish tradition that we don’t shame people, but give them the ability to move forward on their own.” Lieberman says that she’s involved with several different micro-financing groups, but declined to specify which. Lieberman has worked, for the last several years, for lobbying and public relations firms, specializing in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries, a role which has raised some questions in the press when the companies she represented benefited from legislation supported in the Senate by her husband. She currently works as a consultant to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, as a paid “global ambassador” on the issue of breast cancer research and health. The Komen Foundation works with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to promote global awareness of breast cancer. (During last week’s Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., Lieberman was the guest speaker at a Republican Jewish Coalition luncheon for the Komen foundation.) “I’ve been involved with other work focused on heart disease and sister-to-sister, ways in which we as women can reach out to one another,” Lieberman said. “I feel very strongly that we as women in many instances have a strength in our family, our community, our cultures.” Most of Lieberman’s work in philanthropy — both for Jewish and non-Jewish causes — “has been in response to people calling me,” she says. “We give to the United Way and all that stuff. We belong to synagogues in Washington and Connecticut and are involved with groups that are important to the Jewish community, like Hadassah and a whole bunch of day schools we endorse. We’ve also been involved with different disease-specific group chapters. All of the different community endeavors that reach out and ask us to help them,” she said. One aspect of American culture of which Lieberman is not so fond is the emphasis on lavish parties for children, from little kids up through the many bar and bat mitzvahs she and Senator Lieberman attend. The morning of our interview she had been at a constituent meeting, with her husband, of Connecticut residents who could not pay their heating bills last winter and were unlikely to be able to do so in the coming cold months. “I found such a poignancy in that. We have too much going for ourselves materialistically,” she says. “I get concerned about this in our community and other communities that are economically blessed.” “How many people have kids’ birthday parties? We should be saying this kid does not need another toy, we’re going to give this money to the Rodriguez family or Brown family. Kids should be part of it so they know that this little boy who’s his age can heat his house.    Between them, the Liebermans have four adult children — one from her first marriage [to prominent Conservative Rabbi Gordon Tucker], two from the senator’s first marriage and a daughter, Hana, from their marriage together. Now a 20-year-old college student, Hana was 12 when she became a bat mitzvah. Her mother they had a celebratory Shabbat dinner and, on Saturday night, took her friends bowling. It was a far more modest affair than most bat mitzvah parties. “Some people were looking and thinking ‘how interesting,’ but we have to role model. We’re very lucky we can celebrate, but sometimes it’s a little too much.” It is both a Jewish and a universal responsibility to be conscious of how we impact society, she says. “We’re bigger than ourselves, each and every one of us. It’s important to acknowledge so that the way we treat the world and others says something about ourselves.”

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11/16/2009 - 12:43

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