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What I Learned at the Hadassah Convention

This week I had the privilege of attending the closing brunch and plenary session of the 93rd Annual Hadassah National Convention, in which newly elected president Nancy Falchuk was officially installed. I went as a reporter rather than as a member of Hadassah, as I am not one, nor did I grow up in what they call a “Hadassah home.”

But sitting there listening to Falchuk and others enumerating Hadassah’s various activities and accomplishments—while picking at a multitude of elegantly-miniaturized breakfast foods—I found myself marveling at what an amazing organization Hadassah really is. From its lobbying and masterful fundraising in support of stem cell research, advocacy for Israel (in so many different ways), and support for women’s rights and leadership, Hadassah really is an active and influential global organization with its hand in many different facets of Jewish and secular public life.

So why do I recoil at the idea of being a “Hadassah woman?” And why did my presence significantly lower the average age in the room?

Though Hadassah has an active Young Hadassah division (women aged 18-35), my sense is that its membership comes mostly from Hadassah homes, women who are following in the footsteps of their mothers and grandmothers (case in point: Falchuk’s daughter Aimee co-chaired the recent Young Hadassah International Conference), and is not necessarily attracting new young members to its ranks, though Falchuk’s inaugural address clearly hinted that they are trying to.

In discussing this phenomenon with a colleague—thanks, Steven, for the chat—I came to a few conclusions:

1. As a volunteer organization, Hadassah does not appeal to career-minded young women. Even Falchuk referred to her mother and her friends as “ladies who lunched,” and that image of privileged women who can afford to not work and who have the time to devote to career volunteerism is increasingly unappealing to women who have been brought up to believe they should pursue careers just like their husbands, and increasingly unrealistic in an expensive world where most families need two incomes to get by.

2. Hadassah’s mission (or missions) are divorced from its structure as a “women’s organization,” so it doesn’t seem particularly relevant to women who might otherwise be interested in the work it does. Though women’s rights is one of Hadassah’s causes, it is by no means its central concern, and having an organization of women that is not focused specifically on advocating for women’s rights seems unnecessary. Why fight for stem cell research within the context of a women’s organization? Why advocate for Israel within the context of a women’s organization? These fights could easily be led by organizations devoted specifically to those causes, or by a non-gender-based umbrella organization. What advantage does activism through a women’s organization bring in these contexts?

Which brings us to…

3. Hadassah is essentially, on its most basic, local grassroots level, a sisterhood organization, an idea that seems anachronistic and perhaps even silly—akin to men’s Masonic lodges—to younger women who, like myself and most of my friends, shunned the very idea of joining a sorority in college. From a purely social standpoint, the local Hadassah chapter is not appealing to younger women. Most women join their local Hadassah chapter in order to do some good and spend time with their friends (evidenced by the appalling amount of chatter at the brunch while people were speaking from the podium). But most younger women don’t want to spend time with the middle-aged women who comprise the bulk of Hadassah membership.

Which brings us to…

4. Hadassah’s just not cool. For us image-obsessed young hipsters, Hadassah’s a little too nice, too safe, too old to be attractive. I’m talking on an honest, visceral level, with the recognition that it’s not rational or politically correct to reject an amazing organization because of its image, but hey, marketing is everything. Which is why Falchuk wants to start a professional marketing division under her tenure as national president.

My recommendation? Young Hadassah should start shaking things up, focusing on some more controversial issues (stem cells are only controversial among Christian fundamentalists, not liberal young Jewish women), and rebelling a little against their mothers’ and grandmothers’ lunching ways. Maybe ladies who snack at midnight…for Darfur? Now there’s an activity I can get behind.

—Rebecca Honig Friedman