Los Angeles Times

Hadassah celebrating centennial

What would it be like if 300,000 people partied on the same day?

We may find out March 22, when members of Hadassah celebrate the group's centennial.

Dubbed Home Sweet Hadassah, it's only one of a host of events, both national and local, marking 100 years of one of the largest Jewish groups in the world. And in South Florida, where 37,500 members live from Vero Beach southward.

Hadassah says it's not only the largest women's Zionist organization but the largest Jewish membership organization. Its members do everything from tutoring to supporting food banks to running youth camps to raising millions for medical research.

And they carry considerable clout -- for Israel, for charity, for health issues, for women's rights.

"When you stand up and say, 'I represent 300,000 women,' it's amazing how many doors open," says national president Marcie Natan during a recent visit to South Florida. "No matter where you are, Hadassah is there for you."

It's quite a boast, but at least one observer says it's justified.

"They have been at the forefront of Jewish philanthropy and outreach and raising consciousness of Jewish issues for a century," says Oren Stier, director of Judaic studies at Florida International University. "Hadassah is enormously important and well respected."

For the centennial, Hadassah regions are planning a variety of celebrations. In South Florida, they include a series of Centennial Shabbats at a half-dozen synagogues around Broward County. They'll start at 7:30 p.m. this coming Friday at Temple Kol Ami Emanu-El in Plantation.

Other Shabbats will be at Kol Tikvah in Parkland, Beth Am in Margate, Beth Torah in Tamarac, Bat Yam in Fort Lauderdale and Beth Israel of Century Village in Deerfield Beach.

Also planned is a walkathon in the fall at Matheson Hammock County Park in Miami, relaying a centennial torch from other Hadassah communities.

Nationally, the organization is asking members to hold Home Sweet Hadassah, celebrations in their dwellings. In Broward, they're calling it a "Queen Esther event," celebrating the heroine whose Hebrew name is Hadassah.

The crown jewel of the centennial is the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Hospital Tower -- a 19-floor, 500-bed, 1 million-square-foot addition to one of the two hospitals Hadassah supports in Jerusalem. Hadassah has already raised more than a quarter-billion toward the $363 million price tag; its goal is to open the building mortgage free.

The hospital tower will be formally dedicated Oct. 12, during Hadassah's worldwide meeting in Jerusalem.

"Most people get gifts for their birthday; in Hadassah, we give gifts," says Merna Shapiro, president of the organization's Broward Region. "The tower is our gift to Jerusalem for our 100th birthday."

The medical achievements stem directly from concerns of Hadassah's founder, Henrietta Szold. Daughter of a rabbi in Baltimore, Szold visited Palestine in 1909 and saw the illness there.

Back in the U.S., she raised funds to send two nurses there. By 1918, Hadassah, the organization she founded, had sent a medical unit with 45 doctors, nurses and sanitary workers.

The group is proud of its work in women's and health issues, especially genetics and stem cell research. Dr. Benjamin Reubinoff, director of the Hadassah Hospital's Embryonic Stem Cell Research Center, has also worked with the University of Miami.

Hadassah doctors helped isolate the BRCA gene, a marker for breast cancer. They're also working with other organizations on vaccines for skin cancer andCrohn's disease.

Hadassah does social work as well. In the Florida Atlantic Region, from Boca Raton to Vero Beach, volunteers are planning to tutor reading in children in public schools, in a partnership with the county's Jewish Federation. In Broward and Miami-Dade, members hold food drives and visit assisted living facilities during holidays.

Future challenges include getting Hadassah hospitals to raise their own budgets for maintenance and upkeep, rather than lean on the organization. Marcie Natan, the national president, says Hadassah should concentrate on buying equipment and hiring top experts for medical research.

Hadassah members say it's a challenge just to get people to show up -- an ironic byproduct of feminism. Now that women are no longer banned from jobs outside the home, they have other options than Hadassah.

"How do you get interaction when women don't go to meetings?" Natan says. "That human touch is important to feeling part of a group."

For many people, money may be an obstacle to joining. When Hadassah offered a dues discount, it gained 60,000 members last year.

"Women still want to identify with an organization that has been a leader in humanitarian efforts," says Dianne Gottlieb, president of the Greater Miami region.

Finally, the members feel they need to improve the image of Zionism. Some younger Hadassah members prefer to leave out the subtitle of "women's Zionist organization."

"We need to make it a modern, engaging word," Natan says. "There will always be a need for Jews to stand behind the State of Israel."

JDDavis@Tribune.com or 954-356-4730.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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  • Marcie Natan, national president of Hadassah.

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