Eighty-eight years after Henrietta Szold founded Hadassah in 1912, the 306,000-member Zionist and social service organization will gather in Los Angeles for its first national convention of the 21st century. From July 16-19, more than 2,500 leaders and guests will mingle at the Century Plaza Hotel, where speakers will range from actor Richard Dreyfuss to political commentators Mary Matalin and James Carville. Hadassah is the largest women's and Jewish group in the U.S., but president Bonnie Lipton admits membership is down from its high of more than 350,000 in the 1980s. More than half of current membership is over 61, so the group is working to reinvent itself and draw younger women. Besides its historic focus on health care in Israel, for example, the organization is now championing women's health in the U.S, among other issues.
The new direction seems to be working. More than 20 percent of convention attendees will be women under 40, Lipton says; one younger member is comedian Sandra Bernhard. Last week, The Journal caught up with three Southern California members, old and new, to discover what drew them to Hadassah.
Dorraine Gilbert, 54, considers Hadassah her second family. Her connection began in 1968, when her husband went off to serve in Vietnam and she was a lonely, scared newlywed in Phoenix, Ariz. "It was a very difficult year," recalls Gilbert, who found solace with her new friends and activities in Hadassah. When Gilbert moved to Alhambra the following year, she immediately picked up the telephone to join her local Hadassah group. There she met a number of dynamic, educated homemakers; together they went on to celebrate all of life's rites of passage. When Gilbert announced at a board meeting that she was pregnant with her eldest son, Aaron, members applauded and planned a baby shower.
Gilbert's Hadassah friends stayed close through her divorce and remarriage, and when Aaron and his wife moved to Israel in 1997. In the mid-1990s, Gilbert visited the Jewish state for the first time and cried when she set foot in the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center at Ein Karem. But she never dreamed the medical facility she had supported for three decades would one day save her grandchild's life.
When Jonathan was born last year, weighing only 4.5 pounds and suffering from a salmonella infection, he was immediately whisked to the neonatal intensive care unit at Hadassah University Hospital on Mount Scopus. Today, he is a healthy 10-month-old. "I consider him my Hadassah baby," says Gilbert, now the leadership chair of Hadassah Southern Calfornia.
As a girl, Elissa Green-Beals perceived Hadassah as an organization for her grandmother, not for a young woman like herself. The 38-year-old veterinarian, who is fluent in Spanish and Hebrew, attended Yale, where she majored in medieval studies and helped lead a Reform-style chavurah. While attending the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) program in Israel, she worked at an animal refuge geared to reintroducing biblical-era species to the wild. As a vet, she was employed for eight months at a clinic in Jerusalem.
When a cousin asked her to join Hadassah back in the States in the mid-1990s, her reply was succinct. "I said, 'Hadassah, eewww,'" quips the vet, whose husband is Rabbi Michael Beals of B'nai Tikvah Congregation in Westchester.
One visit to the group changed her mind, however. Green-Beals discovered a cadre of energetic professional women and became the group's American affairs coordinator, focusing on issues such as domestic violence. Within months of her move back to Southern California in 1997, she had co-founded a new Hadassah group, Chalom, which kicked off in her sukkah.
Not surprisingly, Green-Beals, who makes house calls every day except Shabbat, brings some animal-related activities to Hadassah. During the week of Parshat Noach, Chalom members attend a "Celebration of the Animals" event at her shul, where they read pertinent Jewish texts, play "ask the vet" and share stories about their pets. "People still raise eyebrows when I tell them I belong to Hadassah," admits Green-Beals, who has a collie named Yofi and a cat named Shovav (little rascal). "But then they come to an event, and they love it."
Dr. Emelya Moradzadeh grew up in large part in Tehran, where Hadassah was distant and young Jewish women didn't often aspire to become doctors. It was only after a long, arduous journey that she became a physician and the president of a Hadassah group, Healing Spirits, for young Persians in L.A.
Moradzadeh, who fled the Iranian revolution with her family at age 13, had dreamed of becoming a doctor since graduating summa cum laude from CSUN in the 1980s. But because she comes from a conservative Jewish Persian family, in which daughters do not leave home until they are married, her parents were hesitant about allowing her to go away to medical school.
Even after Moradzadeh was accepted at Stanford and other prestigious schools, life intervened. Her brother-in-law fell into a coma following major cancer surgery, and Emelya moved in with her sister for a time to provide solace. Only several years later was she able to move to Milwaukee to attend the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Hadassah came into her life unexpectedly during her internship in Los Angeles. The president of the Healing Arts group invited her to attend an Israel Independence Day program, and as Moradzadeh sat transfixed in the audience, she experienced a strong sense of connection. "I remembered landing in Israel after I left Iran, with the orange lights [twinkling] below, and feeling that I belonged," says the doctor, who has just completed her residency in internal medicine.
Moradzadeh immediately decided to join the Zionist organization. "I consider myself fortunate to have become a doctor," she explains. "Now it's my turn to give back to the community."For convention registration information, call (310) 407-3150.