The Experience of Two Volunteers

Betty Lieberman on Hadassah

I am 49 years old, the mother of three daughters ages 25, 22 and 12. For the past 27 years, I have been an active member of Hadassah. I have served in almost every capacity on the group and chapter level, having been both a group president and Milwaukee Chapter President. I have held many regional chairmanships including organization vice-president.

I love Hadassah. To me, it has always been the perfect blend of ideology and action —the opportunity to connect with the idea of Israel as the central point of Jewish life, and to help other Jews. It is significant in my life as an American Jewish woman and it affects life in Israel.

I am concerned about Hadassah’s future. While Hadassah continues to grow nationally in both membership and amounts of money raised, in Milwaukee there’s been no significant change in the number of members in the last ten years. We raise more money each year, but do not keep up with inflation, so that the actual spending power we provide is probably less that it was ten years ago.

In addition, we find that we have fewer women willing to become involved and do the work than ever before. Fewer women attend meetings and events. Top leadership in the chapter is still available, but the groups are becoming weaker as we have more passive members and as previous potential leadership looks for other sources of satisfaction and personal growth.

What does our membership look like today?

  • Older women who feel strongly about Israel, want passive education as well as a place to spend time and socialize, but no longer will take responsibility or work;
  • Active involved leadership —small in numbers but very dedicated—middle aged
  • Younger and middle-aged women looking for fulfillment elsewhere, i.e., careers or returning to school —not necessarily because they are uncommitted to Jewish causes but because “organization work is not enough for them”;
  • Younger, traditional women—passive, interested in entertainment and social activities—perhaps not yet ready for deep involvement.

A few years ago, when my older daughters went to college, I systematically reviewed and evaluated my life, my accomplishments and goals, and my future. I decided that since Jews, Israel and women were my major concerns and that since I had already established credibility in the voluntary sector, this was where I could personally make the greatest impact and find the greatest personal fulfillment.

Because I had more time to devote and had decided to become a career volunteer, I began to expand my activities into other parts of the Jewish community. I spearheaded a drive to include more women in the decision-making process both in the local Federation and in local Jewish agencies. This year, I am Women’s Division President and our board designed and offered a unique skills seminar for women in positions of community leadership. I also headed a committee in the Jewish Family and Children’s Service which, through persistence and education as to the need, caused a Jewish Day Care Center to open on September 1, 1977.

However, in Hadassah, where I have worked in leadership capacities for 27 years, I can say without hesitation that I have never influenced a decision made by national Hadassah. It does not make me feel very good nor does it say much for how Hadassah feels about me as an individual. Send money and members, dear—we’ll do the rest!

It has become apparent to me that national Hadassah excludes its membership throughout the country from the decision making process in much the same manner men have traditionally excluded all but a handful of exceptional women from their decision-making process:

Item: All decisions regarding projects in Israel are made in New York with approval of the National Board (which meets twice a year), and rubber-stamped by the Annual Convention. All philosophy and policy decisions are made by the National Board and handed down to chapters without discussion. There is no formal process for getting the board to consider a new idea, nor for members to have a resolution or idea considered by the Convention;

Item: Membership and fundraising quotas are meted out by National to chapters by a system that provides for no discussion or input by the chapters. At best, a complaint may succeed in a minimal cut in quota. (Overly high quotas are frequently discouraging to local leadership.)

Detailed national administrative budgets are not readily available so that while we are told administrative costs, we have no idea as to specific amounts spent for salaries, public relations, printing, office expenses, travel, etc.

Item: Although we know that Hadassah is one of the major employers in Jerusalem, we have no input into its personnel policies. For instance, since we are an all-women’s group and since many Israeli women must work, do we have affirmative action policies for women in all our Hadassah installations? Do we encourage women to enter medical and dental school as well as nursing school?

Do we encourage women to have upward mobility and head our departments? Do our Youth Aliyah villages and Comprehensive High School have non-sexist education and career policies so that girls are offered as many and the same options as boys? Do we offer equal pay for equal jobs for men and women?

Does National ever ask the membership for an opinion about these issues?

Item: Education material is provided by National to be disseminated to the members. Local chapters are merely conduits. There is no arena for discussion as to what we think is important. National decides and provides material with the slant they feel is appropriate.

Item: There is no opportunity for anyone outside the New York area to be a national president, although in this age of instant communication and air flights, other national organizations have had presidents from other parts of the country.

If Hadassah wants to continue to recruit the best and the brightest Jewish women in communities throughout the country for its local leadership, I submit that these undemocratic policies will have to be radically and creatively changed.

I suggest, as a first step, that task forces be established throughout the country. These task forces should address themselves to the development of a new system for the cross-fertilization of ideas between women throughout the country and the national officers, and for the inclusion of women throughout the country in at least some areas of decision-making.

I believe the first tentative steps have already been taken. I will feel that we have really “made it” when both the editor of Hadassah Magazine and the director of the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center are women.