It’s a Jewish joke so old and well-worn that nobody can remember who was the first to tell it. But it encapsulates the indomitable can-do spirit of the legendary “Hadassah lady” better than anything else.

A tour bus with 30 Hadassah ladies aboard turned over and all were speedily dispatched to heaven. On their arrival, one of the angels wouldn’t let them in because the computers were down. At that moment God intervened and arranged temporary lodgings with Satan until the computer glitch could be fixed.

A few hours later God received an urgent telephone call from Satan imploring him to take the Hadassah women off his hands. “What’s the problem?” God asked.
Satan replied, “These ladies are ruining my set-up. They’ve been down here only a few hours and already they’ve raised $100,000 for a new air conditioning system.”

The moral of the story is clear: It doesn’t matter where you put the women of Hadassah – they’re going to make it a better place and they’re going to do it quickly and efficiently.

The formidable Hadassah lady was never one to be easily dismissed. In its earliest years Hadassah was ahead of its time when it came to tapping into the skills and talent of Jewish women. Hadassah ladies fiercely guarded their independence, resisting pressure to join together with men’s groups for fundraising and political activities. This was female empowerment before the term was even coined.

At a time when “female pursuits” were stereotyped as frivolous, Hadassah’s work wasn’t. In fact, unlike more politically oriented Zionist men’s groups, the Hadassah ladies were action- and project-oriented, their eye always on the bottom line of supporting medical and social welfare institutions in Israel.

A new role for women

While these women were building Hadassah, they were also building themselves.

The responsibilities of Hadassah leadership gave women a chance to develop professional skills, take part in public activities and organize events. Their effectiveness – and the respect that Hadassah won – carved out a new role for women, not only in Zionist organizations, but in the Jewish community, showing that women can be leaders in their own right, and not just as adjuncts of their husbands.

This was revolutionary and crucially important in the pre- and post- World-War II era, the height of the glorification of woman’s role inside the home. The Hadassah lady was no mere housewife: she was a confident woman with a well-developed sense of importance and relevance separate from her role as wife and mother.

“I think that not only did Henrietta Szold understand how to organize women but she also understood how to produce leaders,” says Deborah Dash Moore, a historian and Director of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan, referring to Hadassah’s founder.

“Probably some of the insights came from her own difficulties as a woman in a man’s world and from recognizing that women needed to carve out their own sphere, which should be political and intellectual, philanthropic and social,” she says.

Moore, like so many Jewish women, has a formidable Hadassah figure in her family –  her Aunt Helen. “My sense was that she had a completely different personality at Hadassah than she did at home, where she was a dutiful daughter taking care of her elderly father and a good wife.” But in Hadassah, she was a worker, a manager and a leader. “Much of the money she raised came from hard work running a thrift shop, handling estates after death, as well as small-scale fundraising activities.”

After 1948, when the State of Israel was established, Hadassah’s prominence grew further and eclipsed its male counterparts. “The men’s Zionist organizations that dealt with political issues and representations didn’t have so much to do after the state was founded. But Hadassah’s mission continued and expanded as its institutions in Israel grew,” says Mira Yungman, author of the book “Hadassah: American Women Zionists and the Rebirth of Israel.”

Though the strength of the Hadassah lady didn’t necessarily change, society around it did. With the birth of feminism in the 1970s and throughout the ensuing decades, educated Jewish women were increasingly dedicating their time and energy to their careers in addition to their family responsibilities.

Image issues

The image of the Hadassah woman suffered as a result. With fewer younger women having the time to dedicate to voluntarism, Hadassah came to be seen as the realm of older women, who were the ones with the time to volunteer. In addition they had to compete with more glamorous and more local causes for women’s time and energy. 

While the Hadassah spirit is kept alive through the generations – life memberships are given as gifts to daughters and granddaughters – it has taken a greater effort to create programming for younger women, who may, in addition to being busy, be put off by the image of the older “Hadassah lady” and her mission. 

Even the word “lady” has become problematic.

“In the context of 20th century America, ‘ladies’ was an honorific,” Moore notes. “It was much more distinguished than ‘girls.’ It implied a seriousness as well as respectability, except when it was used in such ironic phrases as ‘ladies of the night.’

Remember, in America it was always ‘ladies first’ and that meant a kind of deference to women, rather than women walking behind men as was common in other parts of the world.

“However, by the 1960s ‘ladies’ had lost these positive meanings and come to refer to a kind of bourgeois respectability of married women who didn’t earn a salary. Second-wave feminists derided ‘ladies’ and championed ‘women.’ The name change accompanied political changes, just as with African-Americans who had been blacks who had been Negroes,” Moore points out.

So the “Hadassah lady” has evolved into the “Hadassah woman.” The changes aren’t only semantic: the organization has created special chapters catering to the interests and needs of younger women, and is creatively reaching out to them on the Internet through social networking.

Moore applauds these efforts and sees no reason for the organization to fade away. For both stay-at-home moms and working women, it is still an organization that provides “opportunities for leadership – no glass ceiling here – and a chance to work together with other women, even though they’ve let men join the organization,” she says. It also offers “a specific focus on certain projects and an opportunity to propose other projects.”

It is certainly a challenge to bring the busy younger woman into Hadassah and convince her that it speaks to her generation, to show her the benefits and fulfillment that come with involvement with the historic organization.

But if history has taught us anything, it is this: There is no challenge that a Hadassah lady isn’t willing to take on. Just ask Satan.