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Hadassah, The Women's Zionist Organization of America

HADASSAH, THE WOMEN'S ZIONIST ORGANIZATION OF AMERICA, largest Zionist, Jewish, and women's organization in the United States, with 300,000 members. Hadassah first sent public health nurses to Palestine in 1912 and in the decades following played a leading role in developing the social welfare infrastructure of pre-State Israel. With a program budget of $125 million by 2005, Hadassah now provides vital funding for Israel's medical facilities and supports many health, educational, and vocational programs in Israel and the United States. Hadassah also offers its medical expertise and assistance in countries throughout the developing world.

Early History

Hadassah has its origins in a turn-of-the-century visit to Palestine by two American Jewish women. In 1909, soon after joining a New York City "Daughters of Zion" study group, the writer and editor Henrietta *Szold, along with her mother, visited the Holy Land for the first time. They were both shocked by what Szold described as the "misery, poverty, filth, disease" they saw there. Upon returning to New York, Szold proposed to her study group that they take up the practical work of relieving Jewish suffering in Palestine.

In 1912, 30 women attended a meeting at New York City's Temple Emanu-El to discuss this idea and agreed to form a new organization called "Daughters of Zion, Hadassah Chapter." The group elected Szold as president, drew up a constitution, and adopted a motto: "The healing of the daughter of my people." The group's first priority would be to provide health care to women and children in the yishuv (Jewish community of Palestine). Less than a year later, Hadassah's Alice *Seligsberg accompanied the first two Hadassah nurses, Rose Kaplan and Rachel Landy, on their voyage to Palestine. In 1913, the nurses opened a small clinic in Jerusalem, called a Nurse's Settlement, to deal primarily with maternity care and trachoma cases. The model for this project was the system of visiting nurses set up by Lillian *Wald at the Henry Street Settlement House in New York City's impoverished Lower East Side neighborhood.

The new organization changed its name to "Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America" at its first annual convention in 1914, declaring that its mandate was "to promote Jewish institutions and enterprises in Palestine and to foster Zionist ideals in America." Policy would be decided at future annual conventions with a central committee making decisions between conventions. Hadassah pledged to develop modern, American-style health and social welfare services in the yishuv, and promised members that their donations would go directly to support projects in Palestine.

After the outbreak of World War I, the Nurse's Settlement in Jerusalem was forced to close down in 1915. But the World Zionist Organization issued an urgent appeal for an emergency medical force to be sent to war-stricken Palestine. In 1918, Hadassah sent a 45-member medical team, the American Zionist Medical Unit (AZMU), to establish hospitals and clinics across Palestine. Hadassah established a Nurses Training School in Jerusalem and a School Hygiene Department and launched campaigns to eradicate malaria, cholera, trachoma, and other infectious diseases. Szold herself moved to Palestine in 1920 to administer Hadassah's ever-expanding network of health facilities and social welfare programs. The following year, the AZMU was renamed the Hadassah Medical Organization or HMO.

At a time when most Zionist organizations concentrated on political lobbying and land development to advance the Zionist cause, Hadassah's focus on health care, and on women and children, was sometimes criticized as frivolous charity work. But Hadassah's leaders replied that they were doing the nation-building work of creating a public health system. Indeed, Hadassah regarded its social welfare activities as women's distinctive contribution to the Zionist state-building effort. "It is the woman's part in constructive national work that Hadassah seeks to stress – the mother tasks," explained the organization.

Hadassah adopted a succession of projects pioneered by Progressive activists in the United States and adapted them for local use in the yishuv. First, Hadassah created a system of visiting nurses, infant welfare stations, pasteurized milk depots, and the Tippat Ḥalav or Drop of Milk program, which used donkeys to deliver containers of pasteurized milk to mothers and babies. Other projects included school hygiene programs, maternity education, nutrition education, domestic science programs, school lunches, and supervised playgrounds.

These types of community-based public health initiatives emphasizing the role of health education in preventive medicine had a measurable effect. Hadassah helped reduce maternal deaths as well as infant mortality rates, prevented the spread of infectious disease, and taught adults and children the importance of hygiene, sanitation, recreation, and nutrition.

Among Zionist organizations working in Palestine, Hadassah was also distinguished by its interest in creating a pluralistic and tolerant Jewish society in which Arabs and Jews lived harmoniously. A strictly nonsectarian policy meant that from the start Hadassah's services were available to all residents of Palestine regardless of nationality or religion. Hadassah leaders often claimed that this helped to reduce tensions between Arabs and Jews.

Women's equality was also central to Hadassah's Zionist vision. In the 1920s, as Jewish women in the yishuv organized to fight for their social and political rights, including property rights and the right to vote in local elections, Hadassah supported their cause.

The services and institutions that Hadassah established in Palestine were designed to promote the development of a modern, egalitarian, and cohesive Jewish society. But Hadassah's larger goal was the creation of an independent Jewish state which could survive without Diaspora assistance. Thus Szold and Hadassah demanded that Hadassah-initiated projects be transferred to local control and management as soon as it was feasible.

In the United States, Hadassah resisted enormous pressure from the Zionist federations to join in national fundraising campaigns and pool its donations with those of other organizations. Persevering through acrimonious and well-publicized clashes with other Zionist organizations, Hadassah fought to preserve its organizational autonomy and the right to fund and administer its own projects. These battles cemented Hadassah's reputation for organizational and financial integrity and won it the loyalty of growing numbers of American Jewish women. An expanding membership base made Hadassah – with 66,000 members in 1939 – the largest single Zionist organization in the United States in the interwar period. This support, in conjunction with a well-developed fundraising apparatus, allowed Hadassah to accomplish its goals in the yishuv.

The needs of American Jewish women were also high on Hadassah's agenda. The organization aimed to educate these women "not only to Judaism but to a realization of their civic and national responsibilities." Szold insisted that Hadassah establish only one chapter in each city so that it could include both immigrant and native-born women from all social and educational backgrounds. In an era when few women had access to higher education or professional opportunities, Hadassah membership gave women a chance to learn new skills and an opportunity to participate in public life. Many women were transformed by their Hadassah work, taking up public speaking, organizing and running chapters of the organization, writing publicity materials and, for some, getting involved at the national and even international level.

Szold formally resigned as Hadassah president in 1926 when the World Zionist Congress asked her to join its Palestine Executive with responsibility for the health and welfare portfolio. Nevertheless, Szold remained in close contact with Hadassah's leadership over the years, effectively giving the organization a supporting role in the Jewish self-government of pre-State Israel. At the same time, Szold left her imprint on Hadassah for the future: an emphasis on health, social welfare, and education; a concern with organizational efficiency and financial transparency; faith in women's abilities; and a commitment to developing Jewish community life in the United States as well as in Palestine (later Israel).

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Hadassah continued to expand its programs in the yishuv. With Jewish immigrants constantly arriving from all over the world, Hadassah's health care workers tried to inculcate modern, Western ideas of health and preventive medicine. These immigrants, wherever they came from, were considered superstitious and backward. Hadassah's workers combated poor nutrition, high rates of illiteracy, patriarchal (and in some cases polygamous) family structures, child labor, and child marriage.

By the 1930s, Hadassah had created a countrywide network of maternity and child welfare programs, as well as many hospitals and clinics. In keeping with its policy of devolution, Hadassah handed over many of its programs to local authorities, and was soon looking for a new focus. When Recha *Freier, a German Jewish Zionist, asked for Szold's help to get Jewish youth out of Germany, Hadassah found its new purpose. In 1935, Hadassah became the sole American sponsor of the Youth Aliyah movement which rescued Jewish children from Nazi Europe and brought them to Palestine to be raised communally on kibbutzim. During World War II and in the years following, Hadassah helped Youth Aliyah to rescue, house, and educate thousands of young European Jewish refugees. This work, in turn, prepared Hadassah for its later role in helping the new State of Israel absorb the children of the Middle Eastern and North African Jews who arrived, en masse, during the first decade of statehood.

Despite wartime stresses, and the burden of helping to care for Youth Aliyah children, Hadassah's attention to building facilities for health and education never flagged. In 1939, the Rothschild-Hadassah University Hospital, the first teaching hospital and medical center in the country, opened on Mount Scopus. In 1942, Hadassah established the Alice L. Seligsberg Trade School for Girls, the first such school in Palestine, followed in 1944 by a Vocational Guidance Bureau in Jerusalem, the forerunner of the still active Hadassah Career Counseling Institute.

In 1948, after an ambush killed 77 of its medical staff, Hadassah evacuated its medical facilities on Mount Scopus, and set up five temporary hospitals around Jerusalem. The new Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center in Ein Kerem was dedicated in 1960. In 1962, as part of Hadassah's Golden Anniversary celebration, a synagogue was dedicated at the Ein Kerem facility. The synagogue's 12 stunning stained glass windows depicting the 12 tribes of Israel were designed by artist Marc *Chagall and draw visitors from all over the world.

In 1967, after the Six-Day War, Hadassah returned to Mount Scopus and began to rebuild. Hailed as a milestone event for Hadassah as well as for Israel, thousands of people attended the rededication ceremony in 1975 when the new Hadassah-Mount Scopus Hospital was finally reopened.

In 1983 Hadassah jettisoned the unwritten agreement limiting its membership to the United States, and promptly began setting up Hadassah affiliates worldwide. The Hadassah International Medical Relief Association (now called Hadassah International) opened membership to all who wished to fundraise for, and otherwise support, Hadassah's medical work. Hadassah International groups in more than 30 countries are generating support for the Hadassah Medical Organization, as well as coordinating international professional exchanges and symposiums.

Modern Challenges

In the 1980s and 1990s Hadassah faced fresh challenges at home. While the economic pressure of supporting programs in Israel was mounting, Hadassah's membership was aging. With career and family pressures competing for their attention, fewer young women were joining the organization. To appeal to this younger generation, Hadassah developed new and expanded domestic programming, including more involvement in American social policy issues. The organization is now deeply engaged in advocacy at the state and national levels in the areas of health care, education, equality, and social justice, including everything from reproductive choice to gun control, environmental protection, immigration policy, and stem-cell research.

On other fronts, Hadassah training programs cultivate women's leadership and organizational skills. Groups like Educators' Councils, Nurses' Councils, and Attorneys' Councils give professional women both a forum for networking and a vehicle for contributing their professional skills to Hadassah. Organized "missions" or trips to Israel for Hadassah members show them what the organization has accomplished on the ground and make connections between American Jewish women and Israelis. On the local level, hands-on programs such as helping a women's shelter, or literacy tutoring, offer tangible results as well as a sense of community and connection with other Jewish women. Hadassah's Department of Women's Health promotes self-education to detect and prevent diseases which affect women and raises awareness of other pertinent health issues like genetics testing and counseling, and organ and tissue donation.

Young people are drawn into the orbit of Jewish community through Hadassah programs like the Training Wheels-Al Galgalim program which teaches parents and toddlers about Jewish traditions. Other programs for American Jewish youngsters include Young Judea clubs, summer camps, summer and year abroad programs in Israel, and campusbased programs.

In 1997, Hadassah established the first university-based research center devoted to the study of Jewish women – the International Research Institute on Jewish Women at Brandeis University – now renamed the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

In Israel, new immigrants and native-born Israelis alike still rely on many Hadassah-initiated and supported services. Hadassah's vocational education and career counseling programs help tens of thousands of adults each year to retrain and find employment. With Hadassah's continued financial and logistical support, Youth Aliyah has helped more than 300,000 children since 1935 and now serves over 12,000 youngsters yearly.

The Hadassah Medical Organization (HMO) is now a state-of-the-art diagnostic, research, and teaching center serving nearly a million patients from Israel, across the Middle East, and around the world each year. Cutting-edge medical research has led to breakthroughs and medical advances in areas such as Alzheimer's disease, cancer, cystic fibrosis, "cold" laser eye surgery, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Mad Cow disease, and more. The HMO also runs an extensive network of community-based health care programs and specialized outpatient clinics in locales across Israel.

The Hadassah University Medical Center – a tertiary care referral facility, teaching hospital, and research center where new medical techniques have been pioneered – consists of two hospitals in Jerusalem, one on Mount Scopus and the other in Ein Kerem, and five schools of the medical professions. All these institutions are run jointly by Hadassah and the Hebrew University. In 2004, a Center for Emergency Medicine was added to the hospital in Ein Kerem with the capacity to treat up to 120,000 trauma patients annually.

Hadassah's international programs have expanded dramatically over the years. Since 1980, more than 500 people from 70 countries have received an International Masters Degree in Public Health from Hadassah's Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine – the newest of the HMO's five schools of professional medicine in Israel. The Hadassah Medical Organization runs cooperative projects in 112 countries throughout the developing world, including Asia, Africa, and Latin America, sending doctors and nurses to build and staff clinics, and offering medical training. Hadassah's medical personnel also offer emergency relief and assistance in response to catastrophes all over the world.

Hadassah's humanitarian work and commitment to the United Nations was recognized in 2001 when the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) conferred on Hadassah special consultative status as a non-governmental organization (NGO). In 2005, the Hadassah Medical Organization, described as "an example to the world that hatred and suspicion can be overcome by people of goodwill," was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.


J. Dash, Summoned to Jerusalem: The Life of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah (1979); A. Gal, "Hadassah and the American Jewish Political Tradition," in: J.S. Furock and M.L. Raphael (eds.), An Inventory of Promises: Essays in Honor of Moses Rischin (1995); M. Levin, It Takes a Dream: The Story of Hadassah (1997); M. McCune, "Social Workers in the Muskeljudentum: 'Hadassah Ladies,' 'Manly Men' and the Significance of Gender in the American Zionist Movement, 1912–1928," in: American Jewish History, 86:2 (June 1998), 135–65; E.B. Simmons, Hadassah and the Zionist Project (2005).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.