Hadassah: Choosing Powerlessness

“What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us?”

— Virginia Woolf: A Room of One’s Own

Surely Virginia Woolf’s protest about our mothers’ poverty does not apply to Hadassah. The famous Hadassah Hospital in Ein Karem, Jerusalem (totally dependent on the organization!, has cost $86 million to build —and the building continues. The Hadassah Medical Organization in general (not including the building fund) has received $225 million from its generous parent over the years. And in addition the “Hadassah ladies” have managed to raise $27,756,000 for their educational services in Israel, $9 million for youth activities, $83,915,000 for Youth Aliyah and $31 million for the Jewish National Fund.

It is clear from the above figures that our mothers —and our sisters and aunts and grandmothers—now have wealth, both in its limited sense and in a wider sense: power. The women of Hadassah have built an organization worthy of anyone’s respect—efficient, capable, in a word, powerful. With 360,000 members it is the largest women’s organization in the United States and one of the most influential Zionist organizations in the world. To what extent are the women of Hadassah using their power on behalf of Jewish women?

To find the answer, I attended Hadassah’s 64th National Convention held in Israel last fall with 3,000 delegates and guests attending. The highlight of the convention, from my point of view, was an Oneg Shabbat program during which the topic of women’s rights in Israel was to be discussed. This was the only place on the program where women’s rights, in Israel or America, were to be touched upon.

The speaker at the Oneg Shabbat which I attended was Ora Ahimey-er, coordinator of the Prime Minister’s Commission on the Status of Women in Israel, which recently published its findings after investigating Israeli society for two years.

Ahimeyer started by describing briefly the myth of sexual equality with which Israeli women and men have been raised. Then she told how the Yom Kippur War had shattered this myth for many women.

“Nobody trained us —nobody trusted us—in peace, so we were useles in war,” Ahimeyer told the audience. “This widespread frustration brought about the Commission on the Status of Women in Israel.

“The press called it ‘the shattering truth about Israeli women’, but we didn’t discover anything earth-shattering. The most devastating thing about the entire report was the accumlation of all the facts— that, for example, on the average, women earn 60% the salaries of men in the same jobs —despite the existence of a ten-year-old Equal Pay Law.”

Although conservative by American standards (witness the extensive use of their husbands’ names in place of their own) the women of Hadassah —and their husbands-are aware, at least in principle, of many of these issues. The question remained: how does their organization reflect this awareness?

Answer: The National Convention had very little to say on the subject of women’s rights. Considering the size of the organization, its impressive accomplishments in the fields of medicine and education and, above all, the fact that it is a women’s organization, this was curious. Perhaps there was no need to mention women’s rights because it was such a constant part of their day-to-day work?

Unfortunately, this hypothesis did not survive the facts. During a plenary session in which the Hadassah Medical Organization presented its reports, I counted one female and 15 male heads of medical services on the dais, and one woman administrator, the director of the School of Nursing, as opposed to 18 male administrators.

Statistics from the hospital bore out this impression. Only 9% of the doctors at Hadassah are women, and 3% of the nurses are men. The women doctors are mostly to be found in such traditionally female departments as pediatrics, psychiatry, social medicine and anesthesiology, where they comprise 20% of the doctors. Seven or eight departments—out of 78 —are headed by women.

Another project is the Hadassah Vocational Guidance Institute. Hadassah supplies only part of their budget, the rest coming from individual applicants and institutions which use its services.

The Institute sells pamphlets to school guidance counsellors and others which describe, in Hebrew, various jobs and careers. The nature of Hebrew grammar being what it is, one must choose one gender or the other to describe the person practicing a trade or profession (doctor, welder, etc.) According to the rules of Hebrew grammar, the masculine gender is the universal one; a single male in an otherwise female group makes the entire group masculine.

Logically, then, the masculine gender should be used to describe all jobs, as there may be one man out there making his living at any of them. And, in fact, the pamphlet describing the lawyer’s profession is written exclusively in the masculine gender. Even the accompanying photographs depict only men. The same is true of “mechanical engineers,” “television writer” and “translator,” although this last also contains a photograph of a woman translator.

The pamphlets on “secretary,” “switchboard operator,” and “stenographer,” however, are all written in the feminine gender and illustrated with pictures of females.

Dinah Epstein, principal of the coeducational Hadassah Seligsberg-Brandeis Comprehensive High School, is aware of these problems. The school, which combines vocational and academic training, offers all its courses of study to all its students, she said.

Epstein added that, as a result of the Yom Kippur War they realized that “women had to be able to replace men” … which is not quite the same thing as broadening opportunities for women.

Despite this stated goal of the school’s administrators, the majority of girls and boys continue to stick to the traditional courses of study. Girls, however, are now entering electronics —the present class has about 20 boys and one girl —and “many” girls are studying computers. No boys are studying cooking or fashion “which is strange,” Epstein observed, “since the best chefs and fashion designers are men….”

At all the meetings on Hadassah projects I asked about the input from the American parent organization and what say it might have regarding their policies. The replies were that Hadassah leaves the local administrators to set all policies with no interferenoe whatsoever.

Indeed, during the convention I was informed over and over again that “We don’t come to another country and tell them what to do.”

But is Israel “another country” to American Jews, no different from France or Japan? Hadassah has been pouring its collective strength and ability into Israel not because it is “another country,” but because it is Israel. How then can they be so indifferent to the policies of their own institutions and the effect these policies have on the country?

Israel is very small. Revolutionary policies in one network of services — particularly one as influential and respected as the Hadassah network — would of necessity have repercussions throughout the country. By doing nothing to influence sexist policies in its own institutions, Hadassah is, indeed, doing something to continue them.