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Young women find it’s not their bubbe’s Hadassah

by Rachel Heller

July 9, 2008 | 11:07 pm

Marlyn Diaz and Holli Rabishaw, co-founders of <br />
Neshama Tova, celebrate at a Hadassah event. <br />
Photo by Michelle Shahon

Marlyn Diaz and Holli Rabishaw, co-founders of
Neshama Tova, celebrate at a Hadassah event.
Photo by Michelle Shahon

When Holli Rabishaw wanted to start a family eight years ago, she traded in a high-powered career in the corporate world for the life of a yoga instructor and full-time mom.

But she was also looking for something more. At 30, she joined Hadassah.

"I really wanted to feel connected to other young Jewish women," said Rabishaw, now 38, of Tarzana. "I was looking for involvement from an Israel perspective and from a community perspective. I was so impressed with the caliber of women, their intelligence and their passion. This seemed like the right home for me."

A spiritually attuned mother of two with a background in software sales, Rabishaw might not seem like your typical Hadassah member. Then again, many young members say, this isn't your grandmother's Hadassah.

Growing ranks of women in their 40s, 30s and even 20s are becoming members, according to Hadassah Southern California officials, as local branches invest in new groups and programs aimed to attract the next generation of young leaders. Singles soirees, wine-tasting parties, green-living seminars and networking events with stereotype-blasting themes like "Girls Gone Wild" are all giving prospective new members a fresh look at the nation's largest volunteer organization on the eve of its 94th annual national convention, July 13 to 16 in Los Angeles. Organizers' efforts are so far meeting with mixed results, but many women are taking the bait.

"There is this idea out there that Hadassah is just for older women," said Laura Mandel, membership specialist for the L.A. Metro region. "These young women are changing that. They're trying to make Hadassah more accessible to their peers."

Many local members are doing that by founding new groups based on current topics and ideas and then bringing other like-minded women -- and sometimes men -- on board. All they need, Mandel said, is a vision and 15 members to get a charter from the national office.

Rabishaw helped found one such group in 2006 with Marlyn Diaz, who she met through a Hadassah event. Between Rabishaw's passion for yoga and Diaz's career as a holistic nutritionist, the two women came up with a "mind-body-spirit" concept for Neshama Tova (The Good Soul), a social group for women in their 30s and 40s that holds monthly events in the West San Fernando Valley.

"We wanted to use those ideas to build something where women would feel that they were being fed spiritually, as well as intellectually," Rabishaw said. "We wanted them to feel like they were getting something they couldn't get anywhere else."

Diaz, 45, said the two co-chairs saw a need in the community for a social venue that focused on their age group's particular concerns.

"These are women who are stay-at-home moms, or have careers, or are transitioning back into careers," said Diaz, an Encino mother of two boys. "These women are looking for a way to rise above the daily grind -- to expand their minds and explore their spiritual side. There is a desire for their own space, away from work and their families, where they can create and connect."

Neshama Tova has so far attracted 29 lifetime members through events such as a wine and cheese evening, a charoset cookoff and discussions about the deeper meaning of Jewish holidays.

At their "Wine Not Learn About Hadassah" gathering, group members invited a sommelier to teach about wine, then placed longtime Hadassah members at tasting stations set up around the room. As newer members circulated through the stations, they got a chance to learn something about the organization.

Mentorship plays a big role in helping to empower new groups, said Lauren Rothman, director of the Hadassah region that serves the San Fernando Valley. Each new group is paired with a "more seasoned" adviser (in Hadassah, she said, there is no such word as "old") who helps group founders hammer out the details of their mission and structure.

"It's important for new groups to have an adviser -- someone who has been there before -- especially for the young leaders," Rothman said. "It's also very gratifying for these mentors to see a group start up, grow and flourish."

It's especially gratifying for Nancy Norris, adviser to Neshama Tova, because she was part of the first push to get young Hadassah leaders recognized over 25 years ago. Norris, 64, a Hadassah member for the past 40 years, first championed the influence of young volunteers at the 1980 national convention in Los Angeles.

"We felt that the young leaders were underrepresented," Norris recalled. "I got up on the floor in front of hundreds of women and gave our platform."

Within a few years, the national Young Women/Young Leaders Department was created. The 25-45 age group currently makes up about 15 percent of Southern California's 20,000 members, and Rothman said that number is rising.

Having a front-row seat to witness this growth has been rewarding, said Norris, whose daughters and granddaughters are now Hadassah members, too.

"This is the future. It's generational," she said. "One generation replaces the other, takes up the cause and does what needs to be done."

But according to some local members, not all segments of the young leaders population are seeing this surge.

Ahava (Love), a Westside-based social group for women in their 20s and 30s, has been almost dormant for years due to a lingering membership slump, said Jessica Wacht, group president. Wacht, 29, a Westwood mother and business owner, said Ahava's lull in activity likely stems from the growing pressure her age group faces in starting their careers.

"For a lot of people in our age group, they're very busy concentrating on their careers and personal lives, and they aren't giving as much energy to the community," she said. "It's tough for people our age to make time for causes outside their families and jobs. They're being pulled in so many different directions. Volunteering is just not a priority."

Newer, hipper programs and groups might attract young women's interest, Wacht said, but she cautioned that interest doesn't always translate to long-term involvement.

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