Celebrating Hadassah’s Activist, Pragmatic, Identity Zionism

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-16-12

Nearly two thousand women have gathered in Jerusalem this week to mark the hundredth anniversary of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization. Jerusalem is not only the Jewish people’s capital, it is the city graced by two Hadassah hospitals, and dozens of other Hadassah blessings. On display this week – and every day — is a celebration of the three words in Hadassah’s subtitle, tapping into: the power of women, the magic of Zionism, and the transformational potential of one, effective organization.

For years now, some have wanted Hadassah to be the WOMEN’S zionist organization – downplaying the Zionism – while others have wanted it to be the women’s ZIONIST organization – downplaying the gender identity. Both extreme factions are wrong. The two together make Hadassah, Hadassah. When Henrietta Szold launched the organization in 1912, women did not have the power or public standing they have today. Hadassah has empowered generations of Jewish women, demonstrating how much women could accomplish, while reflecting a female sensibility in such crucial, life-affirming arenas as health, education, and welfare.

Growing up in the Hadassah-sponsored Young Judaea youth movement, my friends and I in the late 1970s witnessed a world in which women’s leadership was natural not forced. We met powerful role models, who were just doing what they were doing as Zionist leaders, running a multi-million dollar organization, speaking at rallies, meeting with Israeli leaders. The formidable Charlotte Jacobson, the legendary Ruth Popkin, the extraordinary Marlene Post, were all part of a chain of leadership that began with Henrietta Szold, reached fulfillment with Golda Meir, and continues today. The Zionism we absorbed was egalitarian, non-sexist, constructively, easily, healthily feminist.

Hadassah Zionism has also been unique. Hadassah Zionism is broad-based, pragmatic, welcoming, and activist. It is about building bridges and uniting Jews around the idea of a Jewish State, not testing each other for ideological or religious purity on a dozen dimensions. And it is about a purifying, transforming, altruistic activism. Hadassah is not just check writing and fundraising. It is about educating and imagining: educating its members and non-members, while imagining a better world for all through the best medical institutions in the world, top technical colleges, extraordinary programs.

Hadassah Zionism, therefore, especially as exemplified by its two flagship hospitals in Jerusalem, teaches the important Zionist and nationalist lesson – that through peoplehood power, through national pride, through Jewish values, through Zionist commitments you can have universalist achievements, doing a world of good for Jews, Arabs and Christians who live in the Middle East and for humanity through pioneering medical and social service work. For that reason, because through peace and through war, Hadassah has been an oasis of mutual cooperation improving the world, I have repeatedly asserted one of my few powers as an academic and nominated it for the Nobel Peace Prize – only to be disappointed as the relativistic, self-involved Europeans honor Yasir Arafat, Jimmy Carter, and in the ultimate act of self-indulgence, the European Union this year.

For its next 100 years, Hadassah must adjust its mission. It is now evolving away from underwriting the Young Judaea youth movement, giving that important organization the independence it needs. It continues its holy work supporting the Hadassah Medical Organization, epitomized by this week’s opening of the $363 million dollar, high-tech, up-to-date, 19-story, 500-bed Davidson Medical Tower at Ein Karem. But it also should embrace a new cause – fighting the growing values crisis afflicting modern Jewry in general and American Jewry in particular.

Even during these economically perilous times, so many of us are suffering from affluenza, the spiritual influenza that comes from having too much. Symptoms include amnesia regarding enduring values, materialism, lack of motivation, addiction to electronics, weakened commitments, diluted relationships, bouts of depression, epidemics of meaninglessness.

Belonging to the Republic of Nothing, so many sleepwalk through life, wired in to virtual experiences and fake Facebook friends, insulating ourselves from a culture of ideas, of values, of caring, of sacrificing for any principles. If the stereotyped Hadassah Ladies of yesteryear, reeking of character, were characterized by their indomitable spirit, formidable presence, and relentless pursuit of their goal, their children and grandchildren, of the “Whatever” generation, risk being pale shadows of their colorful forbears, rootless, aimless, spineless, amoral, disaffected, passive, disengaged.

Hadassah’s network of 300,000 women cannot only trust their role modeling and their good works to help tackle this problem. They have to, as the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, address this problem boldly, directly, creatively. The must be harbingers of a Zionist values revolution, championing Identity Zionism. They must learn how to inspire their children and grandchildren to inherit their commitments not just their assets, their skill sets not just their bank books, their values not just their valuables.

They should start a conversation immediately, about who they are, what they do, why they do what they do, and why they need the next generation as partners in this holy work. They should explain how much they have done for Israel – and explain how by doing so much for that great country and for the United States, they also did so much for themselves. In so doing, they will reveal the true secret of Jewish communal work, of charitable giving and community building, that the more you give the more you get, the more you invest in good deeds and good works, the greater and grander your life becomes.

John Kennedy got it half right. It is good to ask “what you can do for your country.” But the experience of hundreds of thousands of Hadassah heroines over the years shows that in doing for your country, your people, your community, you also discover all the good that your country, your people, your community can do for you.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press in the fall.

Gil Troy: Happy 100th Young Judaea

Center Field: Happy 100th Young Judaea

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-9-09

One hundred years ago today, 50 activists meeting in New York established Young Judaea, which became America’s largest Zionist youth movement. The movement’s centennial occurs in rough times. Hadassah, its generous sponsor since 1967, is cutting back. Membership is down. Many consider youth movements outmoded in the Internet era, and Zionism itself passé.

Nevertheless, Young Judaea’s glorious history illustrates why the movement must not die. We need Young Judaea to thrive as an altruism incubator, a community builder, an identity enhancer, providing an inspiring model of 24-7 Judaism while molding a Zionist response to today’s challenges.

I first entered the “Z-House,” Zionist House, Young Judaea’s Queens regional headquarters in 1975. I was a very serious, very square 14-year-old, sporting Poindexter glasses, dragging a big black briefcase as a schoolbag. Young Judaea liberated me from being so conventional and conformist. Unlike many movement friends, I liked my parents, my synagogue, my Jewish day school education. Still, the movement added edge, zest, passion, wrapped up with many of the best friendships I would ever make – and still enjoy.

AS REGIONAL LEADERS and through the movement’s senior camp, Tel Yehudah, my friends and I joined a nationwide network of people who cared about Israel, Judaism, and the world. We believed ideas counted. We believed Arik Einstein’s song “you and I will change the world.” We debated issues constantly, from the morality of playing American rock music or using blow dryers in a Zionist camp to the compatibility of a Jewish state with universal values.

We were blessed with extraordinary madrihim, leaders, who took our ideas seriously while making education and activism fun. To single out some risks slighting many. Still, I appreciate how my witty, wry, delightfully-tortured, super-smart club leader Greg Musnikow; my reedy, exuberant, deeply intellectual and compellingly spiritual camp unit head, Steve Copeland; and the gruff, charismatic, hard-hitting, fast-talking, substantive but endlessly entertaining pied piper of Tel Yehudah, Mel Reisfield, each shaped me as a thinker, an educator, a Jew, a Zionist, an historian, a human being, a friend, even a parent decades before I married.

The movement gave us a community, what we call today a platform, for learning, leadership, identity-building, social-activism, maturing experiences and fun. I still quote insights I learned at camp about the clash between tradition and modernity in the 1800s that created Zionism and shaped today’s world. I remember the first time I took 40 campers hiking, suddenly realizing I was in charge and personally responsible for their safety.

AS JUDAEANS, we translated our formal and informal Jewish learning into vital modes of Jewish living, rooted in our history and traditions, influenced by Western values and sensibilities, enlivened by song and dance, perpetual laughter and occasional tears. We fought to free Soviet and Ethiopian Jews, to defend Israel and save the environment, to help kids with special needs and remember the needy, all through the movement. Amid this serious work, we bonded. We questioned and quarreled, paired off and broke up, giggled and pranked. We lived large.

These experiences taught us that Zionism was more than pro-Israelism, that Zionism was not just the Jewish national liberation movement reestablishing our homeland but was a vehicle of individual liberation fulfilling big dreams, personally and collectively, Jewishly and universally. Our Zionism was subversive. It began by critiquing American Jewry and modernity, repudiating the materialism, vulgarity, emptiness and ignorance warping so many Jewish – and American – institutions. We examined the Jewish community, American life, Israel itself, as they were – and said, “We expect more, we demand more”: more justice, more ethics, more intimacy, more safety, more dynamism.

As general, nonpartisan, pluralistic Zionists, we valued klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people, over the partisan rivalries plaguing the Jewish world and Israel. Most Judaeans were liberal and nonobservant. Nevertheless, we observed Shabbat publicly, served kosher food exclusively and prayed daily. This openness enabled religious and nonreligious Jews, liberals and conservatives, to talk together and, of course, argue together.

ALTHOUGH THE MOVEMENT did not save the world (yet), it produced extraordinary alumni. So many movement graduates went into helping-professions, communal leadership, intellectual pursuits, that if ex-Judaeans established a church, it would be called “Our Lady of the Social Workers and the Educators, the Community Leaders and Philanthropists.”

I could boast about my superstar friends in America and Israel, describing their impact on campus and in communities, in the music business and the coffee business, in virtually creating the Israeli environmental movement while keeping the Zionist flame burning in both countries. I could boast about how the movement kibbutz, Ketura, unites religious and secular Israelis, keeping kibbutz ideals alive today, thriving as a community based on altruism not selfishness.

But my Judaean friends’ greatest collective accomplishment is the honorable, ethical lives they lead, their rich Jewish family lives, the noble values they fulfill daily. A recent Hadassah survey showed – surprise, surprise – that movement alumni were much more likely to marry Jewish, light Shabbat candles, contribute to community, move to Israel. I can add that my Judaean friends are much less likely than others to divorce, neglect their children, indulge in pathological drug and alcohol use, forget their obligations to others, even as many personally prosper.

With Israel established and thriving, Soviet and Ethiopian Jews freed, American Jews feeling thoroughly at home, many pronounce Zionism irrelevant. But Israel still needs defending and perfecting, and American Jews desperately need education and inspiration. Young Judaea’s constructively communal countercultural sensibility, its vision of Zionism as a moral system and source of hope, is needed now. The Birthright Israel identity-building revolution through Israel experiences of the last decade reflects a Judaean sensibility applied on a mass scale. Young Judaea never was and never will be a mass movement. But the movement could nurture a committed cadre of this next generation’s Zionist dreamers and doers – as it has been doing for the last hundred years.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. He divides his time between Montreal and Jerusalem.

Gil Troy at Hadassah’s 94th Annual Convention

The growing materialism and “meaninglessness” in much of American Jewry could be fought with teaching Zionism by creating savings accounts for children and teenagers to be used for eventual trips to Israel, suggested McGill University history Prof. Gil Troy.

Gil Troy

Gil Troy

Speaking on Monday, the second day of the 94th annual Hadassah convention at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, Troy and other speakers at a plenary session “Is Israel on Your Radar Screen?” bemoaned the fact that the younger Diaspora Jews are, the less likely they are to care about or identify with Israel.

The birthright program that will bring 42,000 young Jews to Israel for 10-day trips this year is excellent, said Troy, “but we have also to take personal responsibility for it and take more vacations in Israel. As the father of four young children, I know that Jewish children get more and more unnecessary gifts. Instead, think of Zionism as an answer for materialism. Hadassah, he suggested, can lead by organizing such savings accounts for travel to Israel. He also advocated widespread teaching of Hebrew to American Jews.

The convention’s 2,000 delegates were polled instantaneously using electronic devices that captured their opinions. When asked whether their youngest adult child was just as attached to Israel as they were, only half answered yes, and 85 percent felt that Jews in their 20s and 30s are not as attached to Israel as their elders.

Prof. Steven Cohen, a researcher in Jewish social policy at the Hebrew Union College, conducted his own scientific study of non-Orthodox American Jews who constitute 90% of Americans who identify themselves as Jews.

According to all measures, the younger they are, the less attachment they feel about Israel. “It’s a terrible tragedy. The only exception of less activity compared to their elders is that younger Jews are more likely to speak to non-Jews about Israel, but this is because they know more non-Jews.”

Because the poll queried people who identified as Jews, Cohen said it “overrepresents Jewish attachment to Israel because there are many intermarried and assimilated Jews who do not identify themselves as such.”

The serious decline in donations to Jewish causes since the 1980s reflects the fact that unmarried intermarried Jews are less inclined to financially support Jewish and Israeli causes, Cohen said.

“The strongest predictor of attachment to Israel is if you have a Jewish marriage partner. There is a corrosive effect on Jewish identity in the US. You can’t sustain ethnicity if don’t have Jewish friends, neighbors and spouses, but two-thirds of young Jews have a non-Jewish romantic partner.

“Assimilation and intermarriage is at the root of declining identification by Jews with and support for Israel. But an antidote is to travel to Israel, and the more you come, the better.”

Cohen also endorsed Jewish financial support for Jewish summer camps and youth movements, independent prayer groups and Jewish learning.

Rabbi Eli Stern, director of special projects at the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, said that there is a “profound identity shift among young Diaspora Jews from assumed Jewish identify to asking why one should be Jewish at all.”

The serious decline of the Conservative Movement, which always supported Israel, Stern said, reflects this disillusionment.

While political support for Israel in the general American population remains strong, using Israel as a source for collective Jewish identity has taken a tremendous hit, Stern added.

Former Israeli cabinet minister, refusenik and human rights activist in the Soviet Union, Natan Sharansky, who is now chairman of the Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, said at the convention that the growing view among young Jews that freedom and peace can be achieved only by rejecting ethnicity, nationalism and faith was dangerous.

“They think that freedom and identity are on opposite sides, that there no values worth dying for. There must be no hesitation in saying proudly that we are for justice and human rights, but the only way we can defend and protect Israel is going back to our roots and being proud Jews,” he said, earning a standing ovation.