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Jewish Journal

Hadassah feminists

by Susan Freudenheim

February 29, 2012 | 12:54 pm

Amid all the boozing, smoking and jumping from bed to bed in “Mad Men,” there’s a certain 1960s persona that’s missing from the popular TV show — and that’s the sort of dedicated young woman who devoted herself not just to her husband and family, or even to her work, but to causes.

The type who may have been a stay-at-home mom, but nevertheless spent virtually all her time working — in service to her community. In Judy Wilkin’s case, that cause was Israel, and Hadassah. That’s who Wilkin was and still is — a Beverly Hills champion of Hadassah for 50 years, a member of a group dubbed Elana, originally just 12 women who met in 1962, all of them legacies of their mothers’ involvement in the volunteer Women’s Zionist Organization of America.

I caught up with Wilkin last Friday morning; she was baking for a family wedding coming up but answered her phone to tell me, “This is a good day!” Not because it was about to be Shabbat, or in view of the upcoming nuptials, but because it was, in fact, the day of the 100th birthday of Hadassah’s founding in New York by a small group of women led by Henrietta Szold. And there’s another anniversary celebration coming up, too, Wilkin noted — the 50th for Elana, scheduled for March 4, this Sunday afternoon, at the Culver Hotel in Culver City.

It’s clear, even after her five decades of active involvement, how much joy Wilkin derives from Hadassah; her words spill out fast and furious as she remembers the day when a group of about 12 newlywed women in their 20s met and were told they would be founding a new Beverly Hills Hadassah chapter. Some, unbeknownst to them, were already members — signed up as lifetimers by their mothers, sometimes almost at birth. The idea, initially, was to create a social group, but with a purpose. One early charge was to sell $1 tickets to a Hadassah luncheon — and anyone who sold 18 tickets got a free lunch for herself. “Some of us could afford the full $18, others just $10 or had to raise it all,” she said. And it was a foray into fundraising that would pay forward.

There were lessons that came with their charge, an education in what Hadassah did — and still does to this day. “We learned about youth in need, because we sold our tickets through our knowledge,” Wilkin told me. In the early years, one focus was on teen survivors of the Holocaust living in Israel; later they worked to help Ethiopian refugee children there, and now they’re helping a wide range of Israeli at-risk teens. Over the years, they also learned to raise money for Hadassah’s extraordinary medical services, both at Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center at Ein Kerem and the Hadassah University Hospital at Mount Scopus. And they learned how to be community leaders.

Being part of Elana, Wilkin said, “taught us how to speak up — how to speak in public, how to chair committees.” In addition to her work for Hadassah, Wilkin became a PTA president at her children’s schools and a board member of the academic decathlon, while others have served as docents at the Skirball Cultural Center and the Hammer Museum, among many local organizations and cultural institutions.

I asked Wilkin how her membership in Hadassah differed from, say, involvement in a synagogue, and she explained that Hadassah involves a great deal of exposure to people who, while all Jewish women, nevertheless can represent great diversity. “It’s interdenominational — we have Democrats, Republicans, observant and non-observant,” she said. But one thing they make sure of: “We are non-political.”

Starting with those $1 donations, the Elana group has gone on to raise more than $4 million over the years, and today about 300 women are on the books as Elana members, Wilkin told me, with many offshoots into other groups for different ages, including younger women. It’s just one of a variety of Hadassah groups that exist locally. There are currently 7,300 members of Hadassah in the greater Los Angeles region, and 300,000 nationally, a number that gives the organization considerable clout in its advocacy on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

I asked Wilkin what Hadassah is doing to enlist those younger women, at a time when so many work full time, whether mothers or not. She said that Hadassah has formed groups specific to the interests and needs of many particular cadres, including for young professionals, such as a nurses council, where lectures offer continuing education hours, and a medical professionals council. There are also very active groups specifically for Iranian women, and a new group is forming for Iraqis.

“I always say that Hadassah members were the first feminists,” Wilkin said, and she calls herself a “professional volunteer.”

“We were a feminist organization before the word was invented.”

I have to admit, I was a bit in the dark about Hadassah — not its good deeds, but about what might be in it for me. But hearing Wilkin talk about the friendships she’s formed over the years, the book groups, movie groups and other social activities that have developed out of that first involvement, I felt a little jealous. So I went to the Web site to look into what it costs. It’s very reasonable, only $212 for a lifetime membership; I signed up.

If it sounds like I’m won over, it’s because of Wilkin’s subtle salesmanship — all learned through Hadassah. It’s also been her ticket to witness history. In 1959, Wilkin’s Hadassah-member mother brought her to Israel to look at a hole in the ground that would become the world-renowned medical center. Now, she said, she’s looking at a huge new tower, the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Hospital Tower at Hadassah Medical Center, opening as part of the centenary celebration this year, and Sunday’s event will benefit the mother-child center there.

Hers is a story with none of the “Mad Men” decadence, but it’s a pretty good yarn, never-
theless.

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