Hadassah Crisis Panics U.S. Leaders of Jewish Women's Organization

Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, requests supporters sign a petition to the Israeli government in support of fiscally ailing hospital in Jerusalem.

NEW YORK — A growing crisis at Hadassah’s flagship Jerusalem medical centers is prompting what appears to be panic among leaders at Hadassah-Women’s Zionist Organization of America.

Volunteer staff, the backbone of the venerable American women’s Zionist organization around the country, has been ordered not to speak with press and the national staff, both paid and voluntary, isn’t doing so either.

Hadassah Medical Organization doctors and nurses went on strike in Israel Monday after the Jerusalem hospital filed for bankruptcy protection last Friday. Staff has not recently been paid full salaries. Only the emergency and maternity departments were operating at the hospital, which typically admits 160,000 patients each year, in addition to seeing more than 138,000 in the emergency department.

Both Hadassah-WZOA and the Israeli government have thus far each pledged $14 million in loans to stanch the red ink pouring out of the fiscally ailing hospital, which has been running at a deficit in the hundreds of millions of dollars. In a petition at Change.org, Hadassah-WZOA is asking Israel’s government to do more.

Hadassah in the United States has aggressively pared down its focus in recent years. Its camping and youth movement arm, Young Judea, was cut off from the mother organization in 2012. It has all but ended serious efforts at the educational engagement of younger women, which was a focus about a decade ago. And it has drastically cut its regular funding to the Jerusalem hospital, to about $19 million a year from what had been upwards of $40 million, said a former consultant to the American women’s Zionist organization, who asked not to be named.

“This is just more piling on of a worsening image that is killing them,” said the consultant.

Hadassah here appears to consider itself in crisis management mode. Assistants to Hadassah’s CEO, Janice Weinman, and Marcie Natan, its national president, said that both women were out of the office and unavailable for comment. The organization’s communication director, Sheryl Hoffman, was likewise unavailable.

One Hadassah regional president, after learning that the national leadership had instructed them to refer all press calls to the national office, said she fears what will happen if she is quoted in the press. “My life will be over,” she said. “I will be vilified. I will lose my position.”

On its website, Hadassah — which describes itself as the largest Jewish organization and the largest women’s group in the United States — posted a statement Monday:
“This is a difficult moment … HWZOA’s position is clear; we will support HMO [the Hadassah Medical Organization, the parent body of Hadassah hospitals] and do our part to help see it through the restructuring process. It is our expectation that HMO's other stakeholders — the Government of Israel, the unions, the university and the hospitals creditors and suppliers — will join us in that effort.”

The organization goes on to request that readers sign a petition to the Israeli government in support of HMO, and compares its situation to that of car manufacturer General Motors, which in 2009 filed for bankruptcy and was rescued by a U.S. government bailout. “Just as GM emerged from its restructuring to once again lead the world in auto sales, we are confident that the recovery plan will allow HMO to emerge from this process stronger and on sustainable financial footing.

“The board of HWZOA remains, as ever, profoundly proud of HMO. No financial setback can erase all it has accomplished and contributed to the Zionist enterprise. And just as the State of Israel has faced countless challenges and overcome them all, so too HMO must and will go through this difficult moment and prove its resiliency.”

Resiliency is the message being adopted by the few Hadassah leaders willing to speak with Haaretz.

Rae Gurewitsch is president of Hadassah’s New York region. After referring a reporter to Marcie Natan and before hanging up the phone, she said, “We’re fine, business as usual. That’s about what I can say. Everyone is informed, and we’re continuing.”

Hadassah’s Florida Atlantic region, which has about 23,000 members in 62 local chapters, raised about $2 million last year, said its president, Joan Baron. “A lot of organizations have challenges over the years. To me it’s like raising a family. When you have a family, no matter what happens you go on and do the best you can, and whether it’s Hadassah or anything else, you have no choice except to look beyond and do the best you can. The purpose of volunteers is to be a cohesive organization, support our cause, remember our purpose is to save lives and build bridges to peace.”

One philanthropy expert said Hadassah should not squander the opportunity presented by its present troubles.

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” quipped Andres Spokoiny, president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, whose members include about 1,000 philanthropists. “If they use this as an opportunity to rethink the way they work, the way their structure is set, if they address issues that created dysfunction in the first place, it could be a positive thing. It could be an opportunity for an organizational turnaround and actually involve new blood, new donors.”

Hadassah has become more akin to an “American friends of” Hadassah hospital than the dynamic domestic group it once was, Spokoiny said. To succeed in the long term “it’s critical for them to grow by providing a programmatic vision and avenues for people to actually engage with them beyond writing a check.”

They need to work toward appeal to younger potential members, he said. “I haven’t heard young funders excited about Hadassah. The image is skewed toward the older generations. They have work to do in being more relevant for younger women and younger funders.”

Spokoiny argued that Hadassah is well positioned to do so. “A healthcare facility is a unique platform for personal engagement. Why isn’t Hadassah partnering with the American Jewish World Service in their programs to serve women and girls in Africa? Imagine how young women here would be captivated by that,” Spokoiny said. “But it requires a new vision, and I hope that this crisis is enough of a shakeup to come up with that vision.”

Maggie Anton, author of the “Rashi’s Daughters” trilogy and “Rav Hisda’s Daughter,” is a lifetime member of the women’s organization. She goes to an occasional local chapter meeting near her home in California and the Chanukah party. She has also spoken to dozens of chapters and multiple Hadassah conventions about her books.

Anton said she is growing disenchanted with Hadassah’s emphasis on the hospital and its refusal to get involved in larger issues, like Women of the Wall after Anat Hoffman was arrested for praying in a tallit at the Kotel as she led 250 Hadassah members in prayer during their centennial convention in 2012. “Why are we supporting a hospital in a country where medical care is the government’s responsibility?” Anton asked. “Hadassah should take a new direction and be more supportive of women in Israel. The power Hadassah could wield” on other issues would be impressive.

But she doubts that many Hadassah members are worried about — or even aware of — what the organization is currently facing. Hadassah is “very much a social as well as charity thing. I don’t think most of them think that much about what’s going on in Israel or in New York, or about what the Hadassah high council is doing.”

Ellen Marson was Hadassah’s executive director for several years before retiring in 2003, at a time when the organization had a staff at its national headquarters (which it has since sold) of about 300 people. “I’ve heard that it’s skeletal now, all over the country,” she told Haaretz. “They’re in a tough spot, working around the clock, and I don’t know what will happen. Somehow, though, Hadassah has always pulled through.”

Meanwhile, according to the former Hadassah consultant, the legacy organization is undertaking a major rebranding effort.

Hadassah / Facebook / The Forward