JERUSALEM — The State of Israel pulled out all the stops to welcome the Hadassah Convention in Jerusalem October 15-18, celebrating the women’s Zionist organization’s centennial and the dedication of Hadassah Hospital’s new Sarah Wetsman Davidson Tower.
There were banners and signs displayed everywhere, and on Ben Yehuda Street, the stores all offered generous discounts to the Hadassah delegates. Most of all, the line-up of speakers for the convention included some of Israel’s most influential figures: President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, United States Ambassador Dan Shapiro, and the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Birkat.
The official opening of the convention was the march of the nearly 2000 Hadassah delegates, including myself and my daughter, Tamara Schiff of Tarzana, California. We were all decked in red Hadassah T-shirts, waving Israeli and Hadassah flags, as we wended our way to Safra Square.
San Diegans at Hadassah convention included, from left, Sue Appelbaum, Andrea Roberts, Fanny Libovits and Eileen Wingard
At the square, we sat in regional groups. Tamara and I sat in the row with San Diegans Fanny Libovits, Suzanne Applebaum, Andrea Roberts, Katharine Backman, Lorraine Thall, and her husband Aron. A number of Hadassah Associates (the male affiliates) were among the throng.
At the opening ceremonies, the Hebrew University Folk Dance Troupe performed colorful dances under the direction of Dan Biron. One of the Israeli tunes to which they danced was, Hava Netze Bim Hakol, a song which I recalled from my years as a member of the Zionist youth group, Habonim. Watching the Hebrew University troupe also had special significance for me, because when my eldest daughter, Myla Wingard, was a student at the Hebrew University during her junior year abroad, she played violin for this same dance troupe, now in its 55th year.
Eillen Wingard and daughter Tamara Schiff pause at the Kotel. (Woman in background is taking a photo over mehitza of the Men’s Section)
Marcie Natan, national president of Hadassah, welcomed the delegates to Jerusalem. She then introduced Nir Birkat, the young and energetic mayor who addressed us, telling about Hadassah’s important role in his city. Hadassah has 6000 employees and 800 volunteers. It is the largest employer in Jerusalem, serving Jews and Arabs alike. It is staffed by people from all the ethnic groups of the region. The high-tech computer expert-turned-mayor spoke about his personal experiences with Hadassah after being wounded in the war in Lebanon. He thanked Hadassah for all it has done and continues to do for Jerusalem and the State of Israel.
The delegates did a flash mob routine to American and Israeli music, and the opening ceremonies concluded with a stirring rendition of Hatikvah.
That evening, in the Binyanei Hauma, Jerusalem’s large convention center, we gathered for the dedication of the Wetsman Tower. The Ra’anana Orchestra played, offering musical introductions to the speakers, and accompanying two different glamorously-clad vocalists.
United States Ambassador Dan Shapiro spoke about the strong ties between the United States and Israel, and his personal ties to Hadassah. Both his mother and wife are active members, and he is a Hadassah Associate. The master of ceremonies instructed us to rise as the president of Israel was ushered in.
Shimon Peres spoke to the delegates, first telling Dan Shapiro to relay to President Obama that “Israel has no complaints.” The venerated statesman, who fought in the Haganah in 1948 and served twice as Prime Minister, told about the problems of the early settlers, “more tears than territory, two lakes, one dead, the other dying, hostile neighbors, no natural resources, with swamps in the north, desert in the south, but, we had the human resource,” he declared.“Our greatest institutions were established during the time of the Yishuv, before the establishment of the State, institutions like the Hebrew University, the symphony orchestra, and Hadassah.”He told about the Hadassah hospitals and clinics scattered throughout the country which Hadassah turned over to the State of Israel when it was established in 1948, all but the hospital in Jerusalem.The Nobel Peace Prize winner, who established the Peres Center for Peace, fostering projects with the Palestinians, Jordanians and Egyptians, stated his continued commitment to the peace process. He pointed with pride to Hadassah’s accomplishment of having cured over 10,000 Palestinian children during the Intifada. “There is full peace in the hospital. When you are sick, you are peaceful.” He concluded, “We are best when we work together, motivated to lift up the lives of others.”
The new Director-General of the Hadassah Medical Organization, Professor Ehud Kokia, expressed his appreciation to the Hadassah members. The dedication included live coverage of an interviewer reporting from the site, and concluded with a display of fountains of light on stage.
Next day, the conventioneers were off in buses to Neurim, one of the youth villages run by Hadassah for underprivileged young people. Through Hadassah’s commitment to education, it was the first to start a college, the Hadassah Academic College, inspired by the American junior colleges. It has three youth villages, the first, Meir Shfeyah, established by Henrietta Szold to absorb youth aliyah children escaping Europe during World War II. Hadassah also runs a youth movement, Young Judea, which offers to its members a year of high school study in Israel.
That afternoon, our group visited the new Hadassah facility in Ein Kerem. The state-of-the-art, 19-floor building has five levels underground, including 20 surgical rooms. We entered the beautiful, spacious lobby, then visited the three large, indoor gardens where patients could meet their visitors, and finally entered a patient room. Beds were situated along the windows so that patients could look out at the vast, forested view of the Judean hills. Rooms were designed for one or two patients, each with a closet and safe. They were working toward a flexible meal schedule so that each patient could order food when he wished, and rooms had space for overnight family visitors. Many patients were reported to request a longer stay in the hospital, given their pleasant accommodations.
Our guide took us up to the seventh floor, and to my surprise, above Room 12 was listed my name and that of my beloved husband, Hal z’l, with a magen david in front of his name. In all the busy aftermath of his death, I had forgotten that I made a contribution to Hadassah in his memory. Tamara and I were deeply touched to see that connection of our family to this remarkable building.
The final day, my group was scheduled to attend the “Inside the Issues” track. Each day, we could choose from among three sessions, each one featuring some of Israel’s leading jounalists, educators, and politicians. The session Tamara and I attended was titled, “Right, Left, Right, Left.” The speakers were Tzipi Livni, former head of the Kadima Party, Aryeh Eldad, member of the Knesset from the National Union Party, and Yehuda Avner, diplomat and advisor to prime ministers.
Livni told about her background, a child of two Irgun members, growing up in a Likud household. Her vision was for a Jewish, Democratic State. She considers herself to be a pragmatist and finds the current situation with undefined borders to be untenable. “This is not the kind of country I want to pass on to my children,” she declared. “Sure, we live in a bad neighborhood, and I don’t want to marry the Palestinians, I want to divorce them, but we must negotiate.”She felt it was a mistake not to have frozen settlement expansion during negotiations, and, as the lead negotiator during the last rounds, she gave examples of where subtle changes can preserve dignity and face-to-face talk can bring clarification to misunderstanding. She advocated getting back to the negotiating table and pushing harder for a signed agreement. The current leader, she maintained, is standing on an iceberg.
Eldad, who is a professor and a plastic surgeon, presented a medical metaphor to describe the situation. “When what appears to be a sore throat does not respond to various antibiotics, it may be that the diagnosis is wrong,” he explained. According to Eldad, two states have been proposed from 1922, 1948, and onward, with the other side never agreeing. The reason, he maintains, is because this is not a territorial issue; it is a conflict of religion and ideology. The Israel-Palestinian conflict, according to Eldad, is simply a symptom of a global conflict of Islam vs. the West. Eldad believed that a two-state solution should mean Jordan as the Palestinian State, where 70% of the population is Palestinian, and Israel as the Jewish State. As far as ending the occupation, he stated, “Yes, I am for ending the occupation, the occupation of the Arabs on our temple mount.”
Avner was more diplomatic. The 85-year-old, former Israeli Ambassador to England, a native of Manchester, came to Israel when he was 17 years old. He fought in the War for Independence. He reminded us of how the Jews were “a powerless object of history,” and now we were the subject of history, responsible for our own destiny. “If we need bread, we grow it, if we need the streets clean, we are the sweepers, and if we need to be safe, we provide our own armed forces.” “For that declaration of independence, our skin was the parchment, our blood, the ink, and our skulls, the inkwell.” It was a matter of heroism or oblivion. The question was, “What can we give?” not, “What can we take?”
As for the future, Avner said we must live with the unknown. The essence of history, he asserted, is to live with the unknown. Although, one can become weary. His sister-in-law was killed in the War of Independence in ’48 at the age of 28, and his son was injured in the ’73 War. Yet, he maintained, we must still love Israel, even as we recognize its flaws. According to Avner, the second War of Independence continues.
He offered ten commandments, several of which were: When an enemy of the Jewish People threatens to destroy us, believe him; be loyal to Israel, the eternal Jewish home; protect Jewish dignity; never hurt a fellow Jew; love peace, but love freedom even more; and be Jewish by conviction.
That evening, Tamara and I were part of a long queue of convention participants waiting to get into the convention center. Because of the prime minister’s presence, we had to have our passports and purses carefully checked. As I was standing in line, the Young Judea high schoolers were passing by, and I spotted the familiar face of BenZion Wollner, son of Marcia and David Wollner of San Diego. We chatted for a few seconds, and he told me that his experience in Israel was “awesome.” He looked well and was all smiles.
At the convention center, Nancy Falchuk gave an impassioned introduction to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, as current chair of the Henrietta Szold Award, presented him with that distinguished honor.
He spoke eloquently, recalling that in 1945, Israel was an agricultural economy, and now it boasts Nobel Prize winners, has a prosperous economy, and the index of inequality is beginning to narrow. He emphasized his government’s recent responses to the needs of its citizens.He pointed to the one year of free tuition given to members of the Israel Defense Forces, as well as improvements in Israel’s health care system, including pay increases to doctors, the addition of 1000 new hospital beds, a new medical school in Sfat, and free dental care for all children under 12 years old. He said that the government of Israel never tolerates discrimination against women and pointed to the fact that women have served as the head of each branch of government: prime minister, chief justice, and speaker of parliament. He concluded by thanking Hadassah for a century of great contributions and for standing up for the Jewish State.
This final gala program included a youth dance troupe with eight drummers on stage accompanying the song, Sham b’Eretz Hemdat Avot. Several videos were shown of young people who had been helped by Hadassah and patients who were healed. There was also a moving video about Henrietta Szold, whose prophetic words rang out: ”Dream big dreams, then take the practical steps to make them a reality.” Hadassah continues to fulfill her vision.
When Convention Chair, Mickey Shulman, opened the evening, she declared, “Despite threats, nearly 2000 came for this convention, and despite a recession, we built the $363 million hospital tower.” Benjamin Netanyahu said his father, Benzion Netanyahu, once told him, “If you want to understand the power of women, look to Hadassah.”
I was happy to have come to Jerusalem with one of my daughters, Tamara Schiff, to share with her the inspiration I shared with my beloved mother, Rose Schiff z’l, who used to bring me along to Hadassah meetings from the time I was ten years old. I am proud to be a member of this 100-year old organization that has made such a significant contribution to the State of Israel.*
Wingard is a freelance writer and former violinist with the San Diego Symphony. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org